Thursday, September 12, 2019


It’s really hard for Washington to end a war. This was proven yet again by the recent outcry from members of the foreign policy establishment over the now-dead news that the United States was close to finalizing a deal with the Taliban. Despite nearly 18 years of conflict, the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal within the next year is somehow still considered by many to be a mad rush toward the exit. 

Their argument never really changes. They insist we have to fight terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them here. It’s what everyone, from hawkish Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has said repeatedly since negotiations with the Taliban began. But this mentality doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and perfectly illustrates how warped our view of the world has become since the events of September 11 — a tragedy from which we learned all the wrong lessons.

Since World War II, global hegemony has been the U.S foreign policy goal, but the shock of 9/11 injected this idea with steroids. Before, the United States had largely been unconcerned about the threat of non-state terrorists. There were certainly people within the FBI and CIA who tried to sound the alarm bells in the 1990s and early 2000s, but they were unable to capture the attention of both the Clinton and Bush administrations. 

The latter’s reaction to 9/11 swung the pendulum completely in the opposite direction, with little regard for the negative, unintended consequences such a move would bring. The existence of terrorism anywhere on the planet was deemed an unacceptable risk, and the United States needed to actively work not only to counter the threat, but to totally eradicate it. As the 9/11 Commission Report made clear, the American homeland suddenly became the entire planet.

This risk threshold — where the existence of bad guys justifies nearly any action to curtail it — has driven the global war on terror for the last two decades. The United States can’t leave Afghanistan because pre-9/11 conditions will re-emerge and terrorists will be at our front doors. This ignores the fact that the “safe haven” theory of terrorism has been debunked time and again, and that 9/11 was planned from multiple points across the globe, including right here in the United States.

Excessive fear of terrorism — whether from al Qaeda, ISIS and its various branches, Iranian proxies, or al-Shabaab in Somalia — drives U.S. action in the war on terror — which has done little to actually keep us safe and much to make the world more insecure. The U.S. invasion of Iraq shows us that much. But we don’t need to police the entire world to defend ourselves. Endless military campaigns needlessly sap the United States of power, treasure and lives, and sow a lot of discord and dysfunction in the process.

Domestic politics haven’t been immune from the consequences of 9/11, either. Militarism abroad begets militarism at home. In building an extensive national security apparatus to deal with foreign threats, the federal government has created a monster that violates our domestic liberty. 

At airports, we submit our person and property to TSA, as they rifle through our belongings and fondle us in a display of security theater that isn’t effective. The NSA created a surveillance state with no significant constraints that leaves very little of our private communications untouched by government. Our own citizens, including a teenage boy, have been executed by unnecessary strikes overseas.

Moreover, this paranoia laid the groundwork for the populism and nativism that now looms large over both American and European politics. A straight line can be drawn from pushing “see something, say something” mindsets (where Muslims have been kicked off planes for undue suspicion) to migrant detention centers at the border, aimed at stopping an “invasion” of people from the so-called third world. When the government operates in a constant state of emergency in its foreign policy, it’s only a matter of time before that seeps into domestic life as well. 

The attack on 9/11 was a horrifying tragedy, but we have let it animate our politics in ways that we failed to foresee in the immediate aftermath and in ways that don’t provide tangible benefits for our security. Our American homeland doesn’t envelop the planet, and we don’t need to act like it does. The first step toward restoring some balance to both our foreign policy and domestic politics is to let go of the siege mentality that 9/11 produced, once and for all. 

• Jerrod A. Laber is a current fellow at Defense Priorities and a senior contributor for Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber. 

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