9/11 is Over | Charles Duelfer

9/11 is Over

For almost two decades policymakers, intelligence analysts, defense planners and warfighters have focused on strategies and priorities birthed on September 11, 2001.  “Today is September 12, 2001” was a sign posted in many offices and field operations.  It’s not September 12 anymore.

There has been a generational shift in America.  National security professionals whose mindset was radically recalibrated with the 9-11 attacks have moved on or evolved.  The country has moved on.  The national attitude post 9-11 is gone.  The popular focus is not on external threats but on internal divisions.  The Congress that created the Department of Homeland Security is long gone.  The Congress that approved the transfer of military equipment to local and state police to prepare for terrorist threats inside the United States is long gone. 

The current narrative is that the United States needs to attend to internal problems.  Some believe security and police forces are no longer essential to protecting America but are threatening America.  Of course, we’ve been here before–as any aging hippie will recall from the 60’s and 70’s.  Likewise those dubbed the “Silent Majority” by Richard Nixon have an opposing view.  (Coincidentally, at the time, I stumbled upon the use by Homer of  “silent majority” in the Odyssey but he was referring to the dead in contrast to the living.  Somehow that stuck with me.)

American internal unrest may be seen as a vulnerability to be exploited and fanned by our enemies (do not doubt that we still have such).   International security dynamics have clearly changed.  The threat of terrorism and the American Global War on Terror no longer the dominant defense planning.

There are, or course, plenty of security risks.  Curiously, many also echo of the 60’s and 70’s.  Russia is back as a real threat and even more so is “Red China” (or the “Chinese Communists”).  Fortunately, nuclear war has not re-emerged as the risk it once was.  Screwing up international security management during the cold war could have incinerated the planet (and in some cases nearly did).  And Greta Thunberg would have had no issue—nor have been afforded the opportunity to chastise all who preceded her by shrieking, “How dare you?”   Yes, Greta, it could have been worse.

Today we find ourselves with risks that derive from nation states as well as global risks that can only be addressed by nation states.  China spent the decade of the 2000’s expanding its GDP at 10% a year.  America spent trillions (when a trillion was a lot) of dollars on economically wasteful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Moreover, the happy face painted on globalization was found to mask some major downsides.

So the mass of enthusiasm to respond to 9-11 is over.  There will be divisive domestic infighting with the upcoming elections and serious doubts will be fanned concerning the legitimacy of the American system.  The patchwork of groups and “communities” who all have leaders demanding to get what they deserve from the great American pie.  Sacrificing for the country is less fashionable now.  Congress, reacting to the pandemic financial crisis and eyeing the coming elections will spend like there is no tomorrow (giving Greta & Company another reason to say “How dare you?”).  These are times when Washington discounts the future pretty heavily—but not permanently.  Lurking beyond our shores, are growing external threats that can diminish the pie for everyone.  They will not go unnoticed.

 It may be appear that Americans are consumed with demanding what their country can do for them and not what they can do for their country.  However, strategic planners in Beijing and Moscow should be careful in assessing American weakness.  The unifying principles of America are not gone.  China and Russia will find that the United States will coalesce around policies and strategies that serve the critical interests and principles America and its allies share.

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