We have forgotten the overwhelming national response to 9/11. Overnight George W. Bush, previously a minority president of dubious legitimacy, turned into the symbol of national resolve. Congress almost unanimously passed an open-ended resolution to fight a "war on terror," and, a year later, voted 296-133 in the House and 77-23 in the Senate (29-21 among the Democrats) to authorize the war in Iraq. The mainstream media supported the two wars as well. The chorus included a lot of people who should have known better. One of my colleagues at the time in the Strategy and Policy Department of the Naval War College remembers a department meeting in which only three of us--including himself and myself--expressed reservations about the Iraq war, even though we had all been teaching for years about the Athenian expedition to Sicily and our parents' generation's adventure in Vietnam. Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Douglas Feith, George Tenet and the rest of them had lived through Vietnam but had evidently convinced themselves that our defeat there was unnecessary, and that they could do better. They couldn't. They embarked upon two bigger ventures--defined by the size and population of the territories we aimed to control--with far fewer men. Failure was inevitable. Yet the counterterror effort and the attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East by force persisted through the Obama administration in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, with more disastrous results. It took Donald Trump to reverse it, and we shall have to wait and see whether Joe Biden finds it necessary, as Barack Obama did, to act boldly somewhere else to make up for the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
These new wars, as various opinion pieces have made clear in recent days, had an extraordinary impact on the US government and American society. Military spending had fallen to a post-1949 low in 2001 in the wake of the end of the Cold War, but it doubled in absolute terms during the next ten years, reaching 4.6% of GDP and 19.6% of total federal outlays by 2011. Previous military buildups after 1940, 1950, and 1965 had fueled our industrial economy, but this one did not. The bulk of the new money went to private contractors focusing on intelligence, as the US government searched frantically for new terrorists all over the globe. In the same decade payments to private contractors doubled from $181 billion to $375 billion, creating a new military-intelligence complex centered in Northern Virginia. It is not clear that this complex contributed anything significant to US security. That was not all. The FBI went with the flow as well and turned domestic counterterrorism into its top priority, eclipsing white collar crime and other priorities. A recent New York Times Magazine article on an FBI agent who leaked documents on the antiterrorism campaign to the press and served severael years in prison for it details at length how useless most of this effort was--a matter of blackmailing immigrants into becoming informants, even though they had almost no real intelligence to provide. Several sting operations in which bureau informants created fraudulent terror networks out of nothing, leading to lengthy prison terms for men who would never have done anything on their own, have been the subject of television documentaries.
The Bush II administration, meanwhile, took advantage of the national mood to push through two rounds of tax cuts, re-creating the permanent federal deficit that the Clinton administration had eliminated. It also embarked behind the scenes on a program of energy independence that has transformed the United States. It did nothing about the housing bubble, leading to the crash of 2008. And by that time, our new financial sector was strong enough to define the Bush and Obama administrations' responses to the crisis, leaving them even more powerful than ever now.
None of this, sadly, bothered our political establishments--Republican and Democratic alike--until 2016. In that year they both discovered that these disastrous policies had broken their bonds with the American people. Neither party establishment could field a candidate who could defeat Donald Trump. Trump lost his re-election bid convincingly, but in four years he created a new politics of personal loyalty without precedent in American history. The 2024 Republican nomination appears to be his for the asking, and it is certainly not impossible that the normal rhythm of American politics might return him to office, especially since Biden is most unlikely to begin a new campaign at the age of 81. And if Trump does not run, the nomination seems very likely to go to the most convincing claimant of his legacy.
In 1775, in 1860, and in 1932, the authority of the federal government had fallen to a low point. Success in war did a great deal to restore it. Failure in war, this time, has helped discredit it. The Republican Party has been working towards that same goal for decades. President Biden is trying to re-establish the government's prestige with new infrastructure, more egalitarian economic policies, and an attack on climate change--but even his attempts to mount a serious response to the pandemic are provoking bitter resistance. As in 1776, 1861, and 1932, our democratic experiment is threatened. The foreign policy failure of the last twenty years contributed mightily to its critical illness.