America’s presidents since the grandfather of the War on Terror, George W. Bush, have regularly pulled the levers of the fear of terrorism to their benefit.
It’s similar – for generations before mine – to when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, or the moment that President John F. Kennedy was shot.
For me… it was early evening (Moscow is seven hours ahead of New York), and I had wandered over to the trading floor of the investment bank to chat with a trader. Strangely, the TV in the corner – usually ignored, with the volume turned down – was the center of attention… And it was immediately clear why.
Twenty years later, we’re remembering 9/11 and the 2,977 victims of the four terrorist attacks by the militant Islamist terrorist group Al Qaeda on American soil… and the people – in total, a multiple of the number of Americans who died on that day – who have died of illnesses stemming from being exposed to the debris of the attacks.
The cost of the attacks on America in terms of human lives was enormous. And, in a different way, the cost of the resultant War on Terror – as launched by then-President George W. Bush shortly after the 9/11 attacks, to “direct every resource at our command” in order to “[disrupt and] defeat… the global terror network” – is similarly incalculable.
The price of the War on Terror that was launched by the events of 9/11 has been the fundamental reweaving of the very fabric of American society, government, and culture… into something thinner and more likely to rip, unravel, and tangle.
The astronomical cost of the War on Terror, beyond lives lost and the $8 trillion all-in price tag, has included the end of American privacy and the erosion – and redefinition – of freedom… a permanent fear and distrust of the world around us… the dissolution of one of America’s greatest intangible assets, its soft power… and a dangerous war fatigue.
The End of Privacy
One of the ironies of the War on Terror is that its objective of countering terrorism has long enjoyed almost unprecedented bipartisan support. Only the struggle to control and contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War experienced a similar level of sustained across-the-aisle consensus.
Efforts to “win” the War on Terror, though, have been a slippery slope and have undercut some of the liberties the War on Terror was supposed to be defending. Today, “an abundance of caution” can lead to excessive and unnecessary – and ultimately counterproductive – efforts to contain COVID-19. And at the height of the War on Terror, there was no political upside to exercise restraint in the effort to fight Al Qaeda, particularly on American soil.
One result has been the construction of a surveillance society “in which the long-standing ‘wall’ between surveillance for law enforcement purposes and for intelligence gathering has been dismantled,” the American Bar Association explained.
An important part of this was the Patriot Act, the quick approval – and eventual de facto permanent institutionalization – of which stemmed from the “stop at nothing” attitude toward the War on Terror. If the parents of preciously precocious toddlers can be hoodwinked into paying more than $72,000 for preschool (at the Stephen Gaynor School in New York) – since, after all, that might make the difference between admission to Brown or just Tufts… and, after all, nothing is too good for Junior – it isn’t surprising that it didn’t take much to convince congressmen that no liberty should be left unsacrificed at the altar of the War on Terror.
The Patriot Act in effect loosened the restrictions that had long been a bedrock of the assumption of privacy on government entities acquiring personal information about citizens that could (possibly, perhaps, maybe) link them to terrorist activities. And just like bureaucracies don’t simply fold up and go away when their assigned task ends, laws that extend the power of government agencies – privacy, and his close friends, freedom and civil liberty, be damned – don’t instantaneously dissolve when the immediate threat has passed.
The Patriot Act has been trimmed and expanded, spun off, revamped, and reauthorized. Twenty years on, its evil spawn have hacked away at the privacy, liberties, and freedoms that Americans once took for granted.
And today, in the post-9/11, post-Edward Snowden world, there’s little doubt that they are listening… or rather, that they can whenever they feel like it – and that you’re as much a terrorist as you are a moon-shooting billionaire is irrelevant. (There’s a reason that if you’re talking on your cellphone as you drive by the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the reception regularly fails.)
Before 9/11, most people could, most of the time, assume a certain level of privacy. But no longer.
And since then, the threat is omnipresent… or at least that’s what you might think. Another effect of the War on Terror is that there’s always a reason to be afraid…
War on Terror bureaucracies – Exhibit A is the Department of Homeland Security, the proud employer of a quarter of a million Americans with a $50 billion budget – need a raison d’être. And in a world where data is power, government agencies – and the politicians who ostensibly oversee them – need a reason to collect more data. Like mojitos by the pool and flying Qatar Airways business class, there’s no such thing as enough, or too much, data.
And what better way to do that than to cultivate a sense of fear of terrorism – forever. America’s presidents since the grandfather of the War on Terror, George W. Bush, have regularly pulled the levers of the fear of terrorism to their benefit. (Is there anything that can not be justified by a mention of “chatter” about a potential terrorist attack?)
Former President Donald Trump elevated turning fear into power to an art form, as Foreign Affairs magazine explained in 2018…
Donald Trump… helped incite a wave of fear about terrorism and then rode it to an unlikely electoral victory, vowing to ban Muslims from entering the United States and to ruthlessly target terrorists wherever they were found.
But American presidents and legislators may be fueling the American frame of mind of fear as much as they’re mirroring it. Think tank and public-opinion pollsters Pew Research Center explained that “defending the country from future terrorist attacks has been at or near the top of… annual survey[s] on policy priorities since 2002.”
As recently as 2020 – before COVID-19 emerged as a more immediate concern – 74% of Americans said that terrorism should be a “top priority” for the U.S. government… that compared with the economy at 67% and jobs at 49%.
Is this permanent sense of fear justified? The American terrorism industrial complex has grown like a weed on steroids… which is, for some, justification in itself.
But in terms of the actual threat… no. According to think tank Brookings Institution, just 100 Americans have died in militant Islamist terrorist attacks since 9/11.
That’s one-third the number of people in the U.S. who die from falling off a ladder every year… It’s the number of Americans who died of an opioid overdose every 12 hours in 2020… or the number of people in America who were killed in a car crash each day last year.
Have so few Americans died in jihadist terrorist attacks because of the country’s permanent fear posture? It’s when we let down our guard and our level of vigilance declines – so they say – that they will strike. Right?
Meanwhile, America has lost something after 9/11 that’s arguably its most important asset on the international stage. And it’s not getting it back.
The Decline of American ‘Soft Power’
“Soft power” is the ability of a country to influence – and convert the preferences and behavior of – other countries, companies, and communities by using attraction or persuasion… rather than through force or coercion.
Soft power is winning hearts and minds through leadership, values, and weapons of mass influence. It’s the flip side of – but a key complement of – the “hard power” of bullets and bombs. In the War on Terror, the power of American persuasion has been, in theory at least, an important element of the arsenal.
But as I wrote in July, the United States has in recent years been losing soft-power ground. It’s ignored or abandoned long-held security and multilateral arrangements and commitments – like its wavering support for NATO, leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, and ending funding for the World Health Organization. (And more recently, it didn’t step up to swing at what would have been the biggest soft-power pitch in generations by vaccinating the world against COVID-19.)
President Joe Biden has tried to reverse these soft-power own-goals. But the latest chapter of the War on Terror, the exit of American forces from Afghanistan, has washed away – like fragile topsoil on a floodplain – any small advances by the current White House in rebuilding soft power.
The disastrous, hasty, and poorly executed American retreat from Afghanistan left allies shocked and appalled at being left out of the exit strategy… Afghan allies were stranded as the Taliban took over… and the U.S. appeared – and, in fact, was – unprepared, incompetent, unfaithful, and untrustworthy.
As the Financial Times explained earlier this month, “[T]he manner in which [the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan] unfolded, with U.S. allies blindsided by the speed of the Taliban takeover and pleading in vain for more time to evacuate their citizens, has undermined confidence in the U.S.”
When the “next Afghanistan” – it’s coming soon – happens, American soft power won’t be the potent pixie dust that it has been in the past. Instead, it will be little more than a pile of dirt. And the latest failure of the War on Terror just solidified that reality.
A War-Fatigued America
Whatever your vice – penthouse view of the beach, Sichuan food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 18 holes in perfect weather, or binging Netflix – it would probably get old after doing it every day for two months… and that’s to say nothing of two decades.
Sustaining excitement and engagement (or, at a bare minimum, support) for the War on Terror – no one’s idea of fun – for 20 years was, of course, impossible. The share of Americans who thought that the initial decision to use force was wrong doubled from 2006 to 2018, for example. That reflects a broader decline in support for the War on Terror, despite continued concerns about jihadist terrorism on American soil.
This drop in interest reflects a dangerous “war fatigue,” as Foreign Affairs explained…
Under four presidents, the American people at first celebrated and then endured the endless wars playing in the background of their lives. Gradually, the national mood soured, and adversaries have taken notice. Americans’ fatigue – and rival countries’ recognition of it – has limited the United States’ strategic options… Fatigue may seem like a “soft” cost of the war on terror, but it is a glaring strategic liability. A nation exhausted by war has a difficult time presenting a credible deterrent threat to adversaries.
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan – and the broader winding down of the War on Terror as President Biden focuses on implementing his “foreign policy for the middle class” vision – signals to friends and foes alike that the U.S. has little appetite for foreign adventures. That may embolden (say) China to encroach upon Taiwan (as I wrote recently, a potential “next Afghanistan”)… or Russia to take another bite out of Ukraine. And the War on Terror will be to blame.
The War on Terror as the response to 9/11 was – at the time – reasonable and necessary. But the sacrifices demanded of the War on Terror have metastasized, and the cancer is killing off parts of the country it was intended to save.
And the risks to America – from the end of privacy, an aura of permanent fear, the decline of soft power, and war fatigue – are rising.