The Power Problem: Part of a series of views on lessons learned in the exercise of American power in the decade since 9/11.
By Stephen Walt
Who won the war between the United States and Al Qaeda? Which side is better off today?
My answer would be: neither. In fact, both sides are worse off than they were before that fateful day. Although the United States is certain to outlast Al Qaeda and its various affiliates, the response to 9/11 combined both intelligent reactions and some self-inflicted wounds. Fortunately for us, Al Qaeda made many mistakes of its own and is a declining force in world affairs.
Let’s start with Al Qaeda’s balance sheet. Bin Laden and his followers gained great notoriety after 9/11 and briefly won some degree of popular support in parts of the Islamic world. But then its leaders proceeded to squander much of that support by attacking fellow Muslims in Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The 9/11 attacks also convinced the United States to withdraw its ground and air forces from Saudi Arabia–which was one of Al Qaeda’s key grievances–but this deployment was never essential to U.S. security and was no great victory for Bin Laden and his followers.
More importantly, Al Qaeda’s decision to attack the U.S. homeland galvanized an immediate reaction and led Washington to launch an all-out counter-terrorist campaign. Over time, that effort degraded Al Qaeda’s core capabilities and eventually led to Bin Laden’s death earlier this year. From Al Qaeda’s perspective, therefore, the 9/11 attacks were a tactical success but a strategic blunder. It failed to ignite sympathetic reactions elsewhere in the Arab world and brought the wrath of the world’s only superpower down upon it.
Finally, Al Qaeda’s long-range goal of restoring a unified Muslim caliphate is farther away than ever. The revolutions that have swept the Arab world in 2011 reflect a deep desire for basic liberties and constitute a vivid repudiation of Bin Laden’s core message. In short, Al Qaeda has been in decline ever since 9/11, and is unlikely to pose a serious threat for much longer.
Yet Al Qaeda’s failure is no grounds for self-congratulation, because the United States is also worse off than it was before 9/11. And the real tragedy is that most of these wounds were self-inflicted. U.S. armed forces successfully ousted the Taliban from Kabul, but the subsequent effort to create a stable government in Afghanistan has been a costly and protracted failure. Even worse, 9/11 led the Bush administration to undertake a foolish effort to transform the entire Middle East with military force, beginning with the unnecessary and ill-planned invasion of Iraq in 2003. The two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have cost the U.S. taxpayer over $4 trillion by the time they are fully paid for, contributing significantly to the fiscal problems now afflicting the nation. These wars have also made the United States even less popular in the region, and distracted U.S. leaders from other pressing concerns.
Finally, 9/11 also led to various reductions in civil liberties here at home, and to the creation of a costly and unwieldy “Department of Homeland Security,” and an overzealous and intrusive “Transportation Security Administration.” It will be difficult to unwind many of these developments, which means that the true damage wrought by 9/11 will be piling up for years to come.
The bottom line? The United States may be winning the war against Al Qaeda, but the price tag has been much higher than it needed to be.