Flying into New York the other day, I got my first good look at the Freedom Tower, now known as 1 World Trade Center, the skyscraper that sits atop 9/11’s ground zero. It does, indeed, scrape the sky, topping out at a patriotic 1,776 feet. Thirteen years after 9/11, I appreciate the nationalist pride that, while terrorists can knock down our buildings, we can just build them right back up. Take that, Osama bin Laden.
If only the story ended there. Alas, bin Laden really did mess us up, and continues to do so. We’ve erased the ruins of the World Trade Center, but the foreign policy of fear that 9/11 instilled is still very much inside us — too much so. It remains the subtext of so much that we do in the world today, which is why it’s the subtitle of a new book by David Rothkopf, “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear.”
Much of the book is an inside look at how foreign policy was made under the two presidents since 9/11. But, in many ways, the real star of the book, the ubershaper of everything, is this “age of fear” that has so warped our institutions and policy priorities. Will it ever go away or will bin Laden be forever that gift that keeps on giving? This is the question I emailed to Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
“The post-9/11 era will not be seen as a golden age in U.S. foreign policy,” he responded. “Largely, this is because 9/11 was such an emotional blow to the U.S. that it, in an instant, changed our worldview, creating a heightened sense of vulnerability.” In response, “not only did we overstate the threat, we reordered our thinking to make it the central organizing principle in shaping our foreign policy.”
This was a mistake on many levels, Rothkopf insisted: “Not only did it produce the overreaction and excesses of the Bush years, but it also produced the swing in the opposite direction of Obama — who was both seeking to be the un-Bush and yet was afraid of appearing weak on this front himself” — hence doubling down in Afghanistan and re-intervening in Iraq, in part out of fear that if he didn’t, and we got hit with a terrorist attack, he’d be blamed.
Fear of being blamed by the fearful has become a potent force in our politics. We’ve now spent over a decade, Rothkopf added, “reacting to fear, to a very narrow threat, letting it redefine us, and failing to rise as we should to the bigger challenges we face — whether those involved rebuilding at home, the reordering of world power, changing economic models that no longer create jobs and wealth the way they used to” or forging “new international institutions because the old ones are antiquated and dysfunctional.”
To put it another way, he said — and I agree with this — the focus on terrorism, combined with our gotcha politics, has “killed creative thinking” in Washington, let alone anything “aspirational” in our foreign policy. Look at the time and money Republicans forced us to spend debating whether the Benghazi, Libya, consulate attack was a terrorist plot or a spontaneous event — while focusing not a whit on the real issue: what a bipartisan failure our whole removal of Libya’s dictator turned out to be, what we should learn from that and how, maybe, to fix it.
I have sympathy for President Barack Obama having to deal with this mess of a world, where the key threats come from crumbling states that can be managed only by rebuilding them at a huge cost, with uncertain outcomes and dodgy partners.
Americans don’t want that job. Yet these disorderly states create openings for low-probability, high-impact terrorism, where the one-in-a-million lucky shot can really hurt us. No president wants to be on duty when that happens either. Yet many more Americans were killed in their cars by deer last year than by terrorists. I don’t think Obama has done that badly navigating all these contradictions. He has done a terrible job explaining what he is doing and connecting his restraint with any larger policy goals at home or abroad.
Argues Gautam Mukunda, a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter,” our overreliance on fencing, so to speak, since 9/11 has distracted us from building resilience the way we used to, by investing in education, infrastructure, immigration, government-funded research and rules that incentivize risk-taking but prevent recklessness.
“We used to invest in those things more than anyone,” said Mukunda, “because they offered high-probability, high-impact returns.” Now we don’t, and we are less resilient as a result — no matter how many walls we put up. We’re also not investing enough in the low-probability, high-payoff innovations — like the Internet or GPS - that have distinguished us as a nation and add to our resilience. “We live in a world where small bets can have huge returns,” said Mukunda.
When you look at the effort our leaders now expend preventing low-probability, high-impact terrorist attacks — or protecting themselves from charges of not having done so — compared with rethinking and investing in the proven sources of our strength in this era of rapid change, said Mukunda, “it’s way out of balance.”