Twelve years have passed since the attacks of September 11, yet too often one gets a sinking feeling that the United States is still desperately trying to work out how best to respond. The Long Shadow of 9/11: America's Response to Terrorism and The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat both address two questions: responses thus far and what next. It is as well they do; 12 years on, the issue remains immediate and of critical importance for all Americans, as individuals and as a nation.
Both books open with a reflection on 9/11. Vali Nasr entitles his prologue "A Week in September," while the introduction to the RAND volume is "The Shadow of 9/11 across America." Those terrorist attacks were, to be sure, in a class of their own and, as such, deserved a carefully considered and appropriate response, one that would ideally see the guilty brought to justice and the safety of the innocent protected. What actually resulted cannot be described as a smart solution, best tailored to the situation. Aside from the loss of life and financial cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is the damage done to America's reputation across the Greater Middle East and beyond.
While in the Arab world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Imperial Britain was envied and reviled in equal measure, America was admired as a beacon of democracy. This was not just because of the promise held out in Wilson's dream for a post-Great War settlement. Of his 14 Point Plan, Point 12 was of particular interest to the region, dealing as it did with the break-up of the by-then-defunct Ottoman Empire. The demand that "the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development" did not sit as well with Britain or France as it did with the locals. It remains an idea that has, in some very important aspects, yet to be realized.
Even after the discovery of oil and more direct involvement in the region, and throughout the period of the Cold War, complete with proxy wars, coups and countercoups, America continued to fare better than it might have in the perennially important arena of public opinion. The reaction to the attacks of September 11 in Cairo, my home at the time, was one of heartfelt and unbridled sympathy for a great evil done against the innocent. How, then, from such a position of popular support did America manage to mishandle possible responses so badly that, every year since 2001, its reputation has become increasingly tarnished, not least among erstwhile friends and allies.
Vali Nasr offers a partial answer in The Dispensable Nation. Currently dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, Nasr draws upon his previous role as senior adviser (2009-11) to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan. In an excoriating appraisal of U.S. policy making, Nasr looks back at his time working for the highest levels of government with disappointment and disillusionment. It is hard to argue against the perspective of one who was, as they say, in the room. It is even harder to dismiss those reflections when they are carefully marshaled, forming not just a critique of what went wrong, but also offering practical suggestions for how to do a better job in the future.
Perhaps Nasr placed too much faith in the unity of the government. While every secretary of state must, at some level, want to be in charge of foreign affairs, not all of them realize they are not. Disagreements between secretaries of state and the White House are not new. They have long revolved around the fact that the White House has more control over foreign policy than state would like, and domestic politics has more control over foreign policy than either party wants. Hillary Clinton understood this better than most and was a great asset to the Obama White House. It is a pity that many in his camp never trusted her.
As for Nasr's take on the Middle East, one cannot disagree: America increasingly looks like a superpower that is tired of the role. However, it is not a role that can simply be shed, and those who advocate for disengagement should be forcefully disabused of the fantasy of a return to isolationism. Nasr does this, offering a broad outline for greater engagement with the world, the Middle East in particular.
Readers of Middle East Policy may well agree with Nasr's view that the Middle East plays a central role in U.S. foreign-policy interests. That said, current political and economic realities demand realistic plans, with limits on spending dictating that money be spent more wisely. The majority of countries in North Africa and the Middle East today need a total shift in their economies. Nasr says that to implement this would mean the "international community would have to make a sizable investment — a Marshall Plan in scale — to bring about change of that magnitude." This is simply not going to happen, as he understands. Instead, Nasr argues persuasively for smarter engagement. Critics of closer involvement with the Middle East often point to the cost, but going to war should not be understood as the only means of engagement. Soft power is less deadly and more cost effective. Diplomacy should not be considered a dirty word.
Nasr's knowledge of the Greater Middle East ranges much further in time and space than the two years he spent with Holbrooke. For this reason, The Dispensable Nation is a powerful call to arms, with a much broader vision than just highlighting one historical moment, and missteps in the relationship between the Obama White House and the State Department regarding South Asia. The breakdown in that relationship does, however, teach us one very important lesson: diplomacy can fail at home as much as abroad, with consequences that can be just as serious.
The Long Shadow of 9/11: America's Response to Terrorism performs a similar function as Dispensable Nation. A superb collection of 16 essays by RAND contributors, the book is a largely successful effort to "assess the military, political, fiscal, social, cultural, psychological, and even moral implications of US policymaking since 9/11." As one would expect from RAND, each piece is thoughtful, smart, carefully plotted and worth reading.
There is not a single entry that does not deserve inclusion here, but special notice might be made of Seth G. Jones's essay, "Lessons from the Tribal Areas," an excellent primer on the importance of local knowledge and personal relationships in intelligence and diplomacy. If this seems obvious, one might wonder why it is that many foreign-policy practitioners fail to put it into practice. Also deserving of special mention are Frederic Wehrey's essay on the Iraq War and strategic overreach and "The Intelligence of Counter Terrorism" by Gregory Treverton.
A central thread running through both of these books, which should be a constant driver of smart foreign policy, is highlighted in a subheading from Brian Jackson's essay "Don't Let Short-term Urgency Undermine a Long-term Security Strategy." He notes, "Demanding Perfection Makes Failure Inevitable."
In the Middle East today, the United States is too often regarded as a bully, frightening rather than respected, unpredictable and dangerous as a result. These opinions matter, not just in themselves, but also in practical terms. When America restores its image in the Middle East, it will find not only that peace is cheaper than war, but that pacific relations with the region make the homeland more secure and that peace and prosperity in those faraway places can also aid prosperity at home.
Increased understanding of the region is a good place to start investing in this brighter future. Too many people continue to believe that the Middle East is made up entirely of violent extremists who want to kill Westerners. It seems hard for those who hold such misguided views to grasp the very simple truth that the overwhelming majority of Arabs and others really want — like most Americans — to live in a secure and peaceful environment and to provide an honest living for their families.
At the same time, many Middle Easterners, in every walk of life and from each distinct ethnic and confessional group, believe one of two fallacies about American power in the world: the United States is a) omnipotent, or b) impotent. Paradoxically, the chaos and insecurity in Iraq and Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasions are cited by members of both camps as proof America is incapable of stopping small numbers of insurgents and guerrillas and is thus weak, or American power and cunning are so all pervasive that the chaos in those countries is just one part of a deliberate master plan.
Quite possibly, these two opinions are also held by many Americans, trying to explain relations with the Middle East since 9/11. If they are, both The Long Shadow of 9/11 and Dispensable Nation are excellent places to start developing a more nuanced view of American foreign policy, effective responses to terrorism, and — with some imagination and effort — opportunities for the United States to regain its positive standing across the Greater Middle East.