18 years after 9/11, American foreign policy in the Middle East lies in tatters. In Afghanistan, the US government is searching for a way to end its military involvement that will not result in the immediate victory of the Taliban, which we invaded the country in 2001 to overthrow. Iraq, which the Bush Administration saw as the keystone of a new Middle East, remains wracked by civil war, and its government, for the second time, is trying to force the withdrawal of American forces from its territory. President Trump, we have just learned, is about to issue a Middle East peace plan that will give the Israelis more concessions than they have ever dared to ask for in public. The Arab spring overthrew the authoritarian government of Egypt with US encouragement, only to see a democratic experiment end in a military coup just a few years later. The US decision to help bring down the Libyan government created chaos in yet another state, and triggered a destabilizing flood of refugees into Europe. A similar attempt in Syria has failed completely. Russian influence in the region has substantially increased, the US abandoned its Kurdish allies on the Turkish-Syrian border, and the Trump Administration foolishly abandoned the nuclear agreement with Iran, a significant step towards peaceful coexistence in the region. Now Iran and the US stand on the brink of armed conflict.
Yet for all that, the foreign policy consequences of the Bush Administration’s decision to reshape the Middle East—which the Obama Administration in many ways adopted for itself—are no more significant, I think, than its domestic consequences. The election of 2016 marked the collapse the American political system. Neither major party could field a candidate who could defeat an oft-bankrupted businessman and reality television star who obviously lacked both the intellectual and temperamental qualifications to be President. At least 50% of the voting-age population had evidently lost all confidence in our governing elite. One reason, undoubtedly, was the complete failure of the US government’s major enterprise in the new century, our attempt to subdue or influence large areas of the Middle East.
About 25 years ago, William Strauss and Neil Howe, two amateur historians, discovered an 80-year rhythm in American history in two books, Generations(1991) and The Fourth Turning(1997). The great crisis of 1774-1794 had thrown off British rule, written the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, and given the nation a new government. About 80 years later, in 1860-65, the Civil War had restored the union, ended slavery, and changed the relationship between the federal government and the states forever. 80 years after that, Franklin Roosevelt once again transformed the government’s role both at home and abroad during the Depression and the Second World War. Each of these crises had created a new order and established a new ideological and social consensus. That consensus, in each case, had begun to erode 20-40 years after the crisis, and the erosion accelerated when the generation that had lived through it as young adults aged, lost power, and died off. One of the many things I learned from their books is that no government wins the support of its people simply because of the design of its institutions: it must win their trust by accomplishing great things and mobilizing resources for common aims. That is what Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson had done in the first crisis, Lincoln and Grant in the second, and Roosevelt and Marshall and many others in the third. But this was not all. Doing the math back in the 1990s, Strauss (who died in 2007) and Howe observed the decline of the post-1945 order that went along with the aging of the GI (or “greatest”) generation, and predicted a new great crisis that would once again reshape the United States during the first 15 years of the 21st century. That prediction has now come true, but with disastrous consequences they did not predict. This time our luck ran out and our leaders embarked upon a hopeless crusade.
2001 was only 72 years after the stock market crash had kicked off the last great crisis, but the new Administration of George W. Bush had big plans in both foreign and domestic policy which it eagerly moved to implement after 9/11. Specifically, they wanted to take down hostile dictatorships in at least three countries—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—under a new doctrine that asserted the right to move unilaterally against any regime that sought weapons that the United States did not think it should have. That was, among other things, a risky strategy domestically. During the preceding 60 years American military power had first defeated Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, and then held the line, on many fronts, in the Cold War. The tragic decision to deploy hundreds of thousands of Americans in Southeast Asia—which failed to achieve its objective—had dealt the first huge blow to the postwar consensus. The foreign policy elite, as Andrew Bacevich showed in Washington Rules, had not abandoned its belief in the utility of American force around the world, but our political and military leadership had stayed out of any major conflict during the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, allowing them to maintain their prestige. George. H. W. Bush had fought a limited war against Iraq in 1991, but he had done so only as the leader of a very broad coalition, and with the limited objective of restoring the independence of Kuwait. After 9/11, however, the new Bush Administration cast caution to the winds, defining a new generational task of spreading democracy through the Muslim world, largely by eliminating hostile regimes. To do so, they took advantage of an outburst of national feeling after 9/11, which, like Fort Sumer and Pearl Harbor, created a bipartisan consensus behind new wars. At the same time, they embarked upon a crusade for energy independence, one that drew little notice at the time, but which has now succeeded—in its own terms, at least—with other huge economic, environmental and political consequences. And the decision to combine new wars with tax cuts instead of tax increases turned a budget surplus into a huge permanent deficit that has made it much harder for the government to deal with domestic problems.
Karl Rove and George W. Bush clearly hoped to create a new Republican majority based in part on successes overseas. This they failed to do when the war in Iraq went badly, and other failures at home, culminating in the financial crisis, reduced the Republican Party to minority status once again from 2006 to 2010. Barack Obama could probably have reversed key Bush policies both at home and abroad, but for the most part, he declined to do so. He did eventually withdraw our troops from Iraq, but he increased them in Afghanistan. As we have seen, he too adopted regime change as a Middle East policy in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, with similarly disastrous results. He had to put US troops back into Iraq to cope with ISIS. He continued the spread of the “war on terror” into more continents, and it has now become business as usual in the US military establishment. In 2016 the Democratic Party fielded former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a frequent supporter of military action abroad and the architect of the Libyan disaster.
Tens of millions of American voters have lost confidence in our political leadership for domestic reasons as well. Both parties embraced and pushed globalization without regard to its impact on many American communities. Both deregulated the economy in ways that have allowed inequality to increase. Both are more responsive to special interests of one kind or another than to the needs of average Americans. Yet the decision of both parties to pursue endless, worse than useless wars in distant lands has surely contributed a great deal to the fraying of their relationships with the electorate. These wars have turned out to be a political luxury that the nation could not afford.