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Pres­ident Bush encourages the service of those at Ground Zero. | Wiki­media Commons (Photo by SFC Thomas R. Roberts/ NGB-PASE)

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.