On Sept. 11, 2001, the post-Cold War era that began so euphorically on Nov. 9, 1989, abruptly ended. The long decade that stretched from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of the World Trade Center was marked by military spending cuts, domestic political scandals, and a general sense that American foreign policy was adrift. President George H.W. Bush had talked of the “New World Order” but had no policy to fit the clever phrase. President Bill Clinton had a clutch of policies but never found a neat way to describe them.
In the wake of al-Qaida’s attack on New York and Washington, an organizing principle suddenly presented itself. Like the Cold War, the new “war on terror,” as it instantly became known, clearly defined America’s friends, enemies, and priorities. Like the Cold War, the war on terror appealed both to American idealism and to American realism. We were fighting genuine bad guys, but the destruction of al-Qaida also lay clearly within the sphere of our national interests. The speed with which we all adopted this new paradigm was impressive, if somewhat alarming. At the time, I marveled at the neatness and cleanliness of this New New World Order and observed “how like an academic article everything suddenly appears to be.”
The events of 9/11 reverberated through many spheres of American life but nowhere more profoundly than in American policy toward the outside world. Slowly, the supertanker that is the American foreign and defense establishment turned itself around, creaking and groaning, as Americans prepared to face new enemies. During the subsequent decade, we created a vast new security bureaucracy, encompassing some 1,200 government organizations, 1,900 companies, and 854,000 people with security clearances, according to a Washington Post investigation carried out last year. We launched two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. We organized counterterrorism operations in far-flung places such as the Philippines and Yemen, changed the culture of our military and reoriented our foreign policy. We sharpened our focus on al-Qaida and its imitators. And we spent, according to one estimate, $3 trillion.
And we were, in the terms defined by the war on terror, successful: Ten years after 9/11, al-Qaida is in profound disarray. Osama bin Laden is dead. Fanatical Islam is on the decline. Our military remains the most sophisticated and experienced in the world. And yet, 10 years after 9/11, it’s also clear that the war on terror was far too narrow a prism through which to see the entire planet. And the price we paid to fight it was far too high.