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Lost U.S. Opportunities After 9/11

Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 9, 2011

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In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States failed to take advantage of "a truly rare, historic opportunity to be creative, to reshape our country, and to reshape the world for decades to come," says CFR President Richard N. Haass. He says the Iraq War never should have happened, but that the main shortcoming in the past decade was the U.S. failure to take advantage of "this extraordinary moment in history, where the United States enjoyed an absolute as well as relative position vis-à-vis the rest of the world that really was without precedent." Haass says progress has been made in the past decade against terrorism, but it will never be completely eradicated. The biggest threats, he says, "to the quality of life in this country, to our ability to lead in the world come from within: the economy, the deficit, the debt, problems of infrastructure, problems of education, problems of productivity, persistent unemployment."

With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, what are your chief thoughts about the past ten years?

The positive part of me would say that all things being equal, we're safer; that we've made progress against terrorists. Terrorists have lost their base in Afghanistan where al-Qaeda plotted the attacks on the United States. We've focused our intelligence capabilities against terrorism. There is much greater international cooperation. The concept of homeland security has come a considerable way. That said, I also feel a sense of disappointment that in some ways we have squandered the decade, comparing where the United States is today as opposed to a decade ago. I look at our economic challenges and weakness; I look at some of the problems in our society; I look at what were two extraordinarily costly and in many ways avoidable conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. I feel that we had tremendous opportunities that we simply haven't developed. To put it bluntly, you remember and I remember the world's reaction on 9/11 and 9/12. "Nous sommes tous Américains," as Le Monde said in its headline. The combination of that solidarity against the backdrop of American preeminence ought to have given us a truly rare, historic opportunity to be creative, to reshape our country, and to reshape the world for decades to come. I really do not believe that we even began to take advantage of that opportunity.

It's been said that President Geroge W. Bush made a mistake in not asking for more sacrifices at home. That instead, he in effect said, "We'll fight the wars, and the rest of you enjoy yourselves."

I actually think it goes way beyond that. I don't believe the war in Iraq ever should have happened. More important, it's not that the United States should have done more in the way of sacrifices. There are things that ought to have been done more fundamentally, for example, improving our educational system, or doing something about our dependency on imported oil, or we could have refashioned many of our foreign policy relationships around the world. So, it goes way beyond the question of whether the president ought to have challenged the American people to have made sacrifices. I actually think history will be tougher on his presidency for what he didn't do to take advantage, again, of this extraordinary moment in history, where the United States enjoyed an absolute as well as relative position vis-à-vis the rest of the world that really was without precedent.

[T]he terrorist threat is likely to morph; it's likely to evolve over the next decade, but alas it is not going to disappear.

On the wars that followed 9/11, it seems to me that there's no question that the attack in Afghanistan was justifiable to clear out al-Qaeda. I was looking back at one of your speeches in 2002 when you were still head of policy planning at the State Department, and you seemed supportive of the planning for the Iraq war at that time, before it started a few months later.

Afghanistan, I believe, began as a war of necessity. The United States was absolutely right to have ousted the Taliban when they would not separate themselves from al-Qaeda. We were right to say that we will not draw any distinction between terrorists and those who harbor and assist them. So, I think that was all right.

Where Afghanistan went off the rails was actually more in the Obama administration, where the United States got, I would argue, overly ambitious about taking on the Taliban and remaking Afghan society. In 2002, when I made this speech, a year after 9/11, I was in a position of being a U.S. government official. I did not support the Iraq war privately; I was quite clear in my sense that I thought it was avoidable. But in government, and you know this, you have your day in court. You argue your brief, and then when policies are decided, you'll salute or you have to leave. So, again, also at that point, in the fall of 2002, the argument was not simply whether we go to war, but the bigger argument in the government that I was waging--or was involved in---was how we do it, when we do it, and the preparations for the aftermath. To me, the big issues were not simply whether the United States would go to war against Iraq; I was, at that point, preoccupied with questions of the domestic and international political backing, the timing of it all, and the preparations for the aftermath, which I was arguing ought to have been extensive and clearly were not.

In 2001, everyone was focused on terrorism, but now Osama bin Laden has been killed, his deputies have been arrested or killed. Do we still have to worry about terrorism?

The short answer is "yes," and the operative word is "worry." We have to be worried about it, we have to be concerned about it, but we don't have to be obsessed about it. But, terrorism hasn't gone away, whether it's al-Qaeda or some other group, terrorists are still active. You still have governments like Pakistan that are supporting terrorism. You have other governments that are unable to do anything about it--say, a Yemen or a Somalia. So, we have to understand that going forward over the next decade, we will continue to face terrorist attacks. It's like disease: it doesn't go away. You don't eradicate it once and for all. So, a specific terrorist threat may change. It could get worse in two ways. It could get worse in terms of access to certain types of weaponry. It could get worse in that it may be more homegrown, which to me is a frightening prospect for what that would mean for the quality of life in our society and civil liberties. So, I actually think the terrorist threat is likely to morph; it's likely to evolve over the next decade, but alas it is not going to disappear.

Where Afghanistan went off the rails was actually more in the Obama administration, where the United States got, I would argue, overly ambitious about taking on the Taliban and remaking Afghan society.

Do you think that after this tenth anniversary, the country will now look ahead? My intuition tells me people are a little fatigued over 9/11.

Well, the truth is Americans have been looking at other things for the last ten years. This anniversary returns the focus to 9/11, but the last ten years have not taken place, if you will, within a 9/11 context on a day-to-day basis. Yes, 9/11 changed some things, whether it's air travel, intelligence, or homeland security, and so forth. But, on the other hand, when historians write about the last decade, they're also going to write about technological innovation, they're going to write about everything from the crashing of the tech bubble [in 2000], to the 2008 financial collapse, to our current problems. They'll write about the rise of China; they'll write about these various wars; they'll write about problems in American political governance. I really don't think that 9/11, and more broadly terrorism and counterterrorism, have been the defining issue of the decade. They've been an issue, but they have not been the defining issue.

In fact, nowadays most people in this country seem focused on domestic problems, such as how to bring about a civilized debate in Congress and what do about getting people back to work.

You're right. It's part of a larger take on America's challenges. The principal challenges facing the United States are not external. We do not face a great power challenger along the lines of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, or the Soviet Union during the late twentieth century. Even terrorism, in its various guises, does not pose an existential threat to the United States. The biggest threats to our standard of life, to the quality of life in this country, to our ability to lead in the world come from within: the economy, the deficit, the debt, problems of infrastructure, problems of education, problems of productivity, persistent unemployment--you name it. So, I believe that Americans are right, in that sense, to change their focus. Now, there is a danger in going too far. We need to be careful not to take on any elements of isolationism. But Americans are right when they look at, say, the next decade, and they say all things being equal, the major--I'm not saying the only--but the major challenges facing this country are likely to be what we traditionally call domestic.

The economy?

Well, it's not that it's just economic, but to some extent the economics is also related to our governance. There are ideas out there in the political space, but we can't build support for them. Either you have special interests pushing back on this or that idea, or we simply can no longer sustain a culture of compromise. We can't make the system work; we can't make the institutions work as they were designed, so economics is how it manifests itself, where we're clearly coming up short, but the problems are less inherently economic than they are political.

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