The attacks of 9/11 came just about a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. During that decade, Francis Fukuyama published his seminal article, “The End of History,” which argued that the end of the Cold War signaled the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism and its impending expansion throughout the globe. Charles Krauthammer, the conservative pundit, went further, saying that the United States should use its overwhelming military power to spread its values more rapidly.
Just as the international environment appeared to become more favorable to the United States, so too did the domestic environment. During the 1990s, the U.S. economy added 20 million new jobs, and by the turn of the century the federal government was running a budget surplus. Upon taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush predicted that within a decade America would eliminate its federal debt entirely. At the turn of the millennium, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounted for one-third of the world’s GDP and one-third of the world’s military expenditures.
Despite claims by the Bush campaign in the 2000 presidential election that U.S. armed forces were suffering readiness problems as a result of the reductions in defense spending under President Clinton, our military was in excellent shape, a point that General Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, constantly made. The quality of the new recruits as measured by education and aptitude was at an all-time high, and overall retention rates for both officers and enlisted were excellent.
The United States’ reaction to 9/11, however, created long-term problems both in our domestic policy and our international affairs. The “Global War on Terror” declared in the aftermath of the attacks led to regime-change missions in two Muslim countries, efforts that have carried a large cost in lives, financial stability, and America’s standing in the world. In an attempt to defeat the purportedly existential threat of Al Qaeda, the United States paid an overwhelming cost: tens of thousands of American troops killed or wounded, trillions of dollars spent on the wars at levels not seen in the United States since World War II (running up a massive federal deficit to boot), civil liberties imperiled at home, and our reputation and influence in the world depressed to new lows.
In addition, civilian and military leaders overstretched and abused the active and reserve components of the All Volunteer Force, especially the Army and Marines, because they lacked the political courage to activate the selective service system to fight these long wars. For example, in the spring of 2007, the Army had 20 of its 44 active combat brigades on the ground in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Of these 20 brigades, nine were already on second tours, seven were serving a third tour, and two were on a fourth deployment of at least 12 months. None of them had demobilized for a full two years between deployments—the time period regarded as optimal for recovery from combat—and four had one year or less at home between combat tours.
The Reserve component was also severely overstretched. By early 2007, about 600,000 reservists had been mobilized and about 420,000, or 80 percent of the Guard and Reserve, had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, with an average of 18 months per mobilization.
The abuse of the Total Force’s Army component has had severe repercussions. From 2005 through 2008, the Army could not achieve its goal of ensuring that 90 percent of its new enlistees were so-called Tier I recruits (those with high school diplomas and who scored at least average on the Armed Forces Qualification Test). The Army compounded the problem by issuing 80,000 of what it called moral waivers between 2005 and 2008. These waivers allowed individuals with criminal convictions and even felonies to enlist.
Finally, repeated tours to combat zones without sufficient dwell time, or time between deployments, also took a toll on the individual men and women serving and their families. Close to 500,000 soldiers have developed mental problems, and divorce and suicide rates have skyrocketed.
Three interrelated actions will go a long way toward rejuvenating our decimated military. With the killing of Osama bin Laden marking the end of the decade that 9/11 began and in many ways defined, the United States now has an opening to roll back and reconsider many of the efforts embraced in the years following that event. Our overstretched military deserves nothing less than a new national security policy recalibrated to meet the threats we face.
Shifting course from the large-scale military efforts of the last decade to the “offshore-balancing” strategy envisioned by the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer would represent a strong first step in America’s pivot to a more sustainable national security policy. This would entail depending more on allies to confront localized threats and drawing on the long-range capabilities of the Navy and Air Force to protect our interests, rather than launching the massive deployments of the ground forces seen after 9/11.
This new approach would facilitate the shift from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism, a change that the President’s recent release of a National Strategy for Counterterrorism suggests is already being contemplated in the White House. A counterterrorism-driven strategy would prioritize Special Forces with targeted missions to eliminate specific, concrete threats and move us away from the efforts of the past decade to transform repressive societies into democracies through large numbers of boots on the ground. This change would allow us to reduce our overall level of defense spending substantially—Special Forces represent only $9.8 billion out of a $558 billion baseline defense budget—a move that would have important implications for our national debt. Reducing war spending would also give us the flexibility needed to repair equipment and address other military readiness issues after a decade of fighting. President Obama’s plan to withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan in the next year relies on a shift to a counterterrorism approach and will be an early test of this change in strategy.
Once we begin to shift strategies in our overseas engagements, we will also have the opportunity to re-evaluate our national security priorities. Nuclear proliferation, for example, merits higher priority on the national security agenda. Bin Laden’s death should be a turning point for President Obama, providing him with the political capital needed to pursue the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and tackle the difficult issue of eliminating tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. This and other threats, such as climate change, or cybersecurity, will increasingly impact U.S. interests at home and abroad, and the President should be leading the effort to confront them.
Taking these steps and learning the right lessons from the last decade is crucial if we are to put our national security policy back on solid footing. The damage that we brought on ourselves in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has shaped the last decade of U.S. foreign policy, but it does not have to drive the next one.