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U.S. Foreign Policy Never Recovered From the War on Terror

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In a 1996 essay in Foreign Affairs, the conservative authors William Kristol and Robert Kagan proposed a U.S. foreign policy of “benevolent global hegemony.” Scoffing at former President John Quincy Adams’s maxim that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” they asked, “But why not? The alternative is to leave monsters on the loose, ravaging and pillaging to their hearts’ content, as Americans stand by and watch.” In Kristol and Kagan’s view, it was the United States’ responsibility to sally forth and slay—an argument they reprised years later as two of the biggest advocates for the Iraq war.

The last two decades have revealed the folly of this hubris. With the declaration of its global “war on terror” after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States went abroad in search of monsters and ended up midwifing new ones—from terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (or ISIS), born in the prisons of U.S.-occupied Iraq; to destabilization and deepening sectarianism across the Middle East; to racist authoritarian movements in Europe and in the United States that feed—and feed off of—the fear of refugees fleeing those regional conflicts. Advocates of the war on terror believed that nationalist chauvinism, which sometimes travels under the name “American exceptionalism,” could be stoked at a controlled burn to sustain American hegemony. Instead, and predictably, toxic ultranationalism burned out of control. Today, the greatest security threat to the United States comes not from any terrorist group, or from any great power, but from domestic political dysfunction. The election of Donald Trump as president was a product and accelerant of that dysfunction—but not its cause. The environment for his political rise was prepared over a decade and a half of xenophobic, messianic Washington warmongering, with roots going back into centuries of white supremacist politics.

The United States has an opportunity to change course. But doing so will require honestly accounting for the destruction that the current course has wrought. The United States will have to reckon with the scale of the disaster it has helped inflict on the world—and on itself—through three presidencies. To that end, the next administration should undertake a comprehensive review, along the lines of the 9/11 Commission or the 2006 Iraq Study Group, to explore the consequences of U.S. antiterrorism policy since 9/11: surveillance, detention, torture, extrajudicial killing, the use of manned and unmanned airstrikes, and partnerships with repressive regimes. The review should include perspectives outside of the usual national security circles, such as those of nongovernmental and grassroots advocacy organizations, minority communities that have experienced the most severe domestic effects of U.S. antiterrorism policies, and civilians in countries where the United States has waged war.

The review should aim to assess the actual severity of current terrorist threats and to stimulate vigorous public debate about the conditions and legal authorities under which the United States uses military violence. It should also seek to illuminate the ways in which militarism abroad and racial and economic inequality at home are mutually reinforcing. (The absurdly militarized police response to the recent racial justice protests offers one vivid illustration.)

The review of........

© Foreign Affairs

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