ANALYSIS — In the 20 years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America got its most important job right: Terrorists did not conduct another major attack on U.S. soil.
But in the process of getting that right, America’s military and intelligence services, despite their good intentions, got a lot wrong — strategically, tactically and morally.
The list of failures starts and ends with the bloody, costly and ill-fated struggles to occupy and pacify Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the flaw that underlies all the others is the Greek notion of hubris: excessive pride and self-confidence that leads, in Greek tragedies, to an inevitable comeuppance at the hands of angry gods.
It’s just mythology. But it was realized in U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades. Each of America’s major mistakes since 9/11 was undergirded by an overweening belief in the correctness of the information used to justify the action, the rightness of the cause and the achievability of unrealistic aims.
These characteristics, which include optimism and willpower, are normally considered quintessentially American virtues. But in wartime they have become a tragic flaw.
Robert Cardillo, a former U.S. intelligence official who presented President Barack Obama with the “president’s daily brief” on global threats from 2010 through 2014, told CQ Roll Call he saw America’s can-do spirit run amok repeatedly.
It would usually take the form, he said, of decision-makers choosing to believe that the next election in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the next creation of a new government office, or the next training exercise for Afghan or Iraqi forces, would prove pivotal in turning things around.
Success was always right around the corner, and the light at the end of the tunnel was forever coming into view.
“One of the things that’s wonderful about our country is that optimism, and in this case it became an acute vulnerability,” Cardillo said.
Crises of overconfidence
The post-9/11 wars have cost U.S. taxpayers $6.4 trillion and resulted in the deaths of at least 800,000 people, according to researchers at Brown University.
America’s war in Afghanistan, its longest ever, ended last month — just short of 20 years after 9/11, a date chosen carefully by President Joe Biden. The last U.S. troops flew out on Aug. 30.
On Aug. 10, some U.S. intelligence officials, who had predicted that the U.S.-backed government in Kabul would last at least six months after American troops left, told The Washington Post that Kabul could fall to the Taliban in one month, while others predicted it would last longer.
The government lasted just five more days.
Biden had earlier manifested the by-now-familiar confidence that America could predict the course of events when he pronounced on July 8 that it was “highly unlikely” that “there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything.”
The failed U.S. evaluation of the Afghan military’s strength and of its will to fight were only the latest in a series of flawed assessments during the post-9/11 wars.
One major U.S. goal in Afghanistan had characteristically American sweep: to prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a haven for terrorism. Unfortunately, indefinitely keeping Afghanistan incapable of hosting terrorists was unachievable — and a recipe for a forever occupation.
To many observers, trying to transform countries into semblances of America was the primary problem with America’s response to the 9/11 attacks.
“Engineering regime change with expectations of installing a liberal, democratic, and legitimate alternative is a fool’s errand,” Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said in an email. “Military power is best used to defend, deter, and contain.”
Underlying that misconception is another more basic one: the hubristic belief that such metamorphoses can be achieved in the first place and that our knowledge is practically unimpeachable.
American virtues become vulnerabilities
The U.S. brass in Washington, Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to plan for the best instead of hoping for the best and planning for the worst.
They embraced their own predictions and fended off anyone who suggested things might not go as well as hoped.
In discussions of the situation in Afghanistan, Cardillo said, pessimistic conclusions were subject to a rigorous grilling, but positive assessments were more readily accepted.
“I do wonder, should we have put those positive assessments through the same rigor, the same kind of challenges that we did those more pessimistic ones?” he asked. “It’s kind of normal, though, not just to be human and want a positive outcome but also to be American and think, ‘We're going to figure this out.’”
In Iraq, meanwhile, Saddam Hussein is gone, but the law of unintended consequences remains enthroned.
The assumption that drove America to war in Iraq was the “knowledge” that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. That mistake was the product of excessive confidence in U.S. intelligence.
Moreover, U.S. leaders at first underestimated the forces they would need to combat an Iraqi insurgency they had not anticipated.
That insurgency morphed into the Islamic State, which later devoured swaths of Iraq and Syria and inspired terrorists elsewhere.
America’s loss of its moral compass in the war on terrorism, most clearly manifest in the use of brutal interrogation techniques, is part of a pattern that has affected many nations in wartime. But it was America’s belief in its own specialness that drove so many other mistakes.
Torture had never worked before in eliciting accurate information, but Bush administration officials believed they could succeed where others had failed.
Fear made them consider torture, and hubris made them go through with it.
The 9/11 attacks are the most obvious example in a series of threats and crises that arose unexpectedly while the military was preparing for other challenges — a list of post-World War II engagements that includes Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti and Kuwait.
More recently, few predicted the military would be called on to respond to climate change, natural disasters, domestic protests, border control and — the biggest unpredicted threat yet to lives and livelihoods — the coronavirus pandemic.
Now the military is preparing for “great power competition.” It is a real challenge, but history suggests American forces will spend most of their time taking on other perils.
America is not as strong and smart as we like to think. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates used to say, America has a “perfect” record of failing to accurately assess threats and predict future engagements.
To be sure, the opposite of prideful policymaking is not any better: hand-wringing about what to do next that leads to inaction when action is needed.
The challenge is to find what the Greeks called sophrosyne: temperance, self-control, prudence, humility, diffidence and knowing one’s limits.
Still, a historical memory is the only thing that can prevent a recurrence.
That seems in short supply. The 9/11 attacks were two decades ago. Just shy of three decades before those attacks, the Vietnam War had ended. But the Vietnam conflict might as well have been ancient Greek history when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began.
In Vietnam as in Afghanistan, the American strategy was to arm and train and support indigenous soldiers, but between those forces’ overreliance on Americans and a shortage of a will to fight, the strategy failed.
“We did lessons learned [studies] after Vietnam, but they ignored them in Afghanistan,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps three-star general who served in Vietnam.
Less than 20 percent of today’s members of Congress were serving at the time of the 9/11 attacks.
Will those lawmakers and their descendants be able to tell the difference between what America can do and should do, on the one hand, and what it cannot do or should not do, on the other?