9/11 anniversary: In another decade, it may not look like a historical turning point
If the United States continues to respond to terrorism with a balance of hard power and soft, then 9/11 may not be the historical turning point on its 20th anniversary that it appears to be now.
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By failing to understand the broader cultural and political context, however, Bush’s strategy made things worse. Whatever the benefits of removing Saddam Hussein, it did not address the problem of terrorism, and the costs far outweighed the benefits. The trillion dollars of unfunded costs of the Iraq War contributed to the American budget deficit that plagues the country today, and bin Laden was able to damage American hard power as well as soft.Skip to next paragraph
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But the real costs of 9/11 may be the opportunity costs. For most of the first decade of this century, as the world economy gradually shifted its center of gravity toward Asia, (the other great power shift I describe in my book), the United States was preoccupied with a mistaken war of choice in the Middle East.
The lesson of 9/11 is that in countering terrorism, hard military power is essential in dealing with hard cases like Bin Laden, but it has to be carefully targeted, and the soft power of attraction through ideas and legitimacy is equally important for winning the hearts and minds of the mainstream Muslim populations from whom Al Qaeda and its imitators would like to recruit.
Fortunately, American strategy after 9/11 has begun to change. The answer to the long term question about history will be whether we are successful in implementing a strategy that balances hard and soft power in counter-terrorism, avoids involvement in land wars of occupation, and focuses on maintaining the strength of the American economy.
If so, 9/11 may look less impressive as a historical turning point on its 20th anniversary.
This piece first appeared on the Power & Policy blog at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.