The Wilson Quarterly

Looking back, it’s easy to think of September 11 and its immediate aftermath as a time when U.S. officials made strategic choices that fundamentally changed the nation’s course. Melvyn P. Leffler, a historian at the University of Virginia, takes a different view. The 9/11 attacks were terrible, but “they did not change the world or transform the long-term trajectory of U.S. grand strategy,” Leffler writes.

Rewind to late August 2001. President George W. Bush had been in office about eight months, and his foreign-policy team was busy with an array of familiar issues, from free trade to China. Then the attacks happened. Suddenly—necessarily—the Bush administration had a new focus. In the months that followed, the administration launched the “global war on terror.”

While Leffler believes that the Bush administration failed to meet the aims of its foreign policy—and often brought about the opposite of what it intended—it did not fail because its approach was radical. Many of the choices the administration made—engaging in preventive war, and promoting defense, open trade, and democratization—were straight out of the U.S. foreign-policy playbook.

Preemption, the most controversial of these moves, has a long history in U.S. foreign policy. President John F. Kennedy, for example, imposed a unilateral blockade on Cuba in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, in 2002, when Vice President Joseph Biden was still a U.S. senator, he declared , “One way or another, Saddam has got to go, and it is likely to be required to have U.S. forces to have him go, and the question is how to do it, in my view, not if to do it.”

President Bush is commonly castigated for his ideological rhetoric, but all U.S. presidents have extolled the country’s ideals in powerful language. Think of President Jimmy Carter on human rights. “The affirmation of democratic values is hardly new,” Leffler observes. Bush’s promotion of free markets and democratization, derided in some circles, is a staple of presidential rhetoric and policy.

Leffler takes no comfort in what he sees as the continuities of U.S. foreign policy. Noting that Bush’s mistakes were no anomaly, he observes that Americans’ experience should promote “sorrowful reflection about how fear, guilt, hubris, and power can do so much harm in the quest to do good.”

THE SOURCE: “9/11 in Retrospect” by Melvyn P. Leffler in Foreign Affairs, Oct. 2011.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marlon Doss

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