The Nation That Fell To Earth

Did the U.S. overreact to Sept. 11? Niall Ferguson, one of the world's leading historians, speculates on how future generations will judge the war on terrorism--and on what it will take for America to win it


    (2 of 10)

    "We're an empire now," a senior White House aide declared in 2004. But the U.S. doggedly remained a republic, to the disappointment of a few hawkish commentators and the relief of everyone else. Elections happened as usual. When torture was used against suspected terrorists, for example, the press howled. When suspects were detained without charge, the courts intervened. As Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor put it, "A state of war isn't a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens." To many Americans, indeed, the whole point of the war was to preserve their country's democratic institutions. And unlike its fighting partners in World War II, when the Soviet despot Joseph Stalin was a confederate, America's key allies in the Global War on Terrorism were also democracies.

    Most significant, the war that began on Sept. 11, 2001, was democratic in a strategic sense, since the democratization of the greater Middle East became one of America's principal war aims. It was an aim inspired by the democratic-peace theory, which stated that democracies were less likely to go to war with one another than were other kinds of states and that therefore a world with more democracies would be a more peaceful world. That became President George W. Bush's central argument for the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush summed up the strategy in his second Inaugural Address, in 2005: "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

    With all the vast resources of a hyperpower at the President's disposal, that was not a wholly unrealistic objective. But while Bush's analysis may have been accurate, the execution of it was fatally flawed. Far from reducing conflict in the Middle East, forcible democratization turned out to have just the opposite effect, unleashing violent centrifugal forces that were beyond American power to control. By focusing its efforts on rogue states, the U.S. ignored the fact that the terrorists' most important area of activity was not the Middle East but stable, prosperous, democratic Western Europe. And while a war against a rogue regime was as asymmetric as a turkey shoot, the same could not be said of a war against diffuse terrorist networks. It became fashionable in the years after 9/11 to speak of "Islamo-fascism." In reality, the enemy was more like communism in its heyday: international in its scope, revolutionary in its ambitions and adept at recruiting covert operatives in the West. The right tactic to defeat it was not conventional warfare but tedious intelligence work--monitoring telephone calls, tracking financial transactions, shadowing suspects, infiltrating cells.

    Above all, Americans underestimated the difficulty of waging war effectively on the basis of democratic business as usual at home. The more normality was preserved in the U.S., the harder it became for ordinary people to understand why American soldiers were risking their lives in faraway countries. And yet the longer the war dragged on, the greater the strain on the U.S. economy.

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. 4
    5. 5
    6. 6
    7. 7
    8. 8
    9. 9
    10. 10