In the wake of President Donald J. Trump’s decision to cancel a planned summit with Taliban leaders at Camp David, Americans continue to debate whether U.S. troops should withdraw from Afghanistan — and whether former President George W. Bush should have sent them there in the first place.
Opponents of “endless wars” in the Middle East commonly cite the region’s continued instability, failed attempts at building functional states in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the massive cost of these conflicts in blood and treasure — over 7,000 deaths and some $5.9 trillion spent — as evidence that these wars were a strategic mistake.
But prior to 9/11, terrorism was not the focus of Bush’s foreign policy platform. Instead, the administration, emphasizing the importance of “great power politics,” initially advocated a grand strategy focused on preserving the global balance of power.
In a major piece in “Foreign Affairs Magazine,” Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor and later secretary of state, presented the realist understanding behind the administration’s approach to foreign policy.
The realist approach to foreign policy treats power and national self-interest as the key forces in international politics. This leads realists to pay special attention to the most powerful nations, or “great powers.” Rice highlighted two such states — China and Russia — as great powers that America could not afford to ignore. Rice also labels North Korea and Iran as “rogue regimes” which threaten global security by pursuing nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism.
Secretary Rice’s article remains noteworthy today because, nearly two decades later, these four nations remain the primary threats to American interests and global stability. Each of these nations presents a more serious threat today than they did in 2000.
Perhaps the primary foreign policy concern for Bush’s team was the U.S.-China relationship. Throughout his campaign, then-candidate Bush repeatedly criticized Bill Clinton’s treatment of China as a strategic partner. Instead, Bush argued, China should be seen as a strategic competitor.
After his victory in the general election, President Bush angered Chinese officials by declaring America would defend Taiwan in the case of a Chinese attack. Bush followed up his statement by approving a landmark, $4 billion arms sale to Taipei in April 2001.
In labeling Beijing a strategic competitor and taking steps to counter the regime, the Bush administration’s China policy was well ahead of its time. Today’s bipartisan view of China as a strategic competitor only materialized during the first two years of the current administration.
Yet, on Sept. 11, 2001, the nation was confronted by a new, unanticipated threat.
At 8:46 a.m., five al-Qaida hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing all passengers on board. At 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 smashed into the South Tower. At 9:28 a.m., terrorists flew a third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, into the Pentagon. At 10:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers attempted to regain control of the plane.
By 10:28 a.m., both towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed.
For the friends and families of victims, for Americans who watched with horror as the events unfolded, and for the nation that grieved in the aftermath, the Sept. 11 attacks were an unspeakable tragedy. 9/11 will rightly be remembered as one of the darkest days in our nation’s history.
But the attacks were also a tragedy in a strategic sense.
After 9/11, eliminating terror understandably became the first priority of U.S. foreign policy. For the first time since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, an enemy had carried out a major attack on U.S. soil. Americans, justifiably furious, demanded a response.
The administration was forced to respond. President Bush vowed America would secure its homeland by invading Iraq — an attempt to eradicate terrorism at its source.
Political necessity is a cruel master. The 9/11 attacks forced the administration to jettison a realistic grand strategy — one that was both prescient and promising — in favor of global war against an enemy with no respect for international norms like the rules of engagement or laws of war.
Due to a heavy reliance on democracy promotion and nation-building, this strategy would prove both idealistic and unattainable.
Americans will never know how the younger Bush administration’s foreign policy would have played out if 9/11 never took place.
But, given the Trump administration’s reversion to the realist focus on great power competition, it remains a compelling question. If Bush’s team had not been forced by 9/11 to divert attention and resources from dealings with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, today’s geopolitical landscape might look far more favorable for the United States.
Brady Helwig is a junior studying politics and is the vice president of the Alexander Hamilton Society.