09/11/2012 07:30 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

What Have We Learned Since 9/11?

** There is a big difference between assertive geopolitics and reckless geopolitics.

Invading Iraq? A disastrous idea, one of the ultimate non sequiturs in geopolitical history, something George W. Bush and Dick Cheney will never live down. We are attacked by transnational stateless religious fundamentalist terrorists, ascetics who want to establish a caliphate across the Islamic world. So we topple a mostly secular dictator who had nothing to do with 9/11, nor had any weapons of mass destruction. And who acted as a powerful check on the ambitions of Iran.

Ironically, Iran is looking like it will end up with more influence in Iraq than we have, thanks to our helpful invasion and backfiring occupation. Naturally, in the way of these things, many of the same people who were eager for war with Iraq are eager for war with Iran, which was greatly empowered by the very war they advocated with Iraq.

Escalating in Afghanistan? A formula for a quagmire, another horrible distraction, and Barack Obama's folly. Taking down the Taliban regime and disrupting and destroying al Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan was a logical response to 9/11. But trying to rationalize and manage the entire country, a place which essentially ended the Soviet empire and led to one of the British empire's greatest defeats was preposterous. Especially since all we really need is the ability to stop al Qaeda from gathering there in one place as it had before. We don't have to run the country in order to do that.

** There are sharp limits to power, even for the "hyperpower."

I could simply elaborate by saying, read the item above. But with America spending more money on our armed forces than the next 14 nations in the world combined and one of the two major presidential candidates insisting that more spending is necessary, this is a point that can't be made too often.

Beyond a certain point, power becomes too tempting to use. And leads to backfires.

** Distraction and The Pivot (from America's over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to increased engagement with Asia and the Pacific.

I suspect that historians will look back on the post-9/11 period and find much of it to have been a fundamental distraction from America's deeper interests, which lie in the emergence of the sprawling Asia Pacific region. You can see the People's Republic of China -- caught up in what may be a messy power transfer, though its regime is so opaque that it requires a revived form of Kremlinology, and internal disarray over human rights and widespread censorship -- moving to take advantage of America being embroiled in the latest crisis in the Persian Gulf by ignoring its neighbors' wishes and accelerating its breathtakingly expansive claims to nearly all the South China Sea.

Incidentally, my archive of articles relating to the geopolitical pivot can be found here.

** We are not good at "nation-building" and counter-insurgency -- as distinguished from counter-terrorism -- is still deeply flawed as it was in the Vietnam War.

Consider the tremendous effort we have put into Iraq, then look at what is happening there now. The country's vice president sentenced to death in absentia for supposed terrorism, waves of attacks across the country, a government drawing ever closer to Iran just months after our withdrawal.

Consider the tremendous effort we have put into Afghanistan, then look at what is happening there now.

We bought into an updated doctrine of counter-insurgency, something very familiar from the Vietnam War, where it also did not work. Counter-insurgency means winning hearts and minds, building physical, social, and political infrastructure, all carried out by large forces of troops spread across the country.

In Vietnam, it worked best when a big unit went into an area, displacing enemy forces which fled elsewhere. But the insurgents knew the big unit wouldn't be there forever. Which makes counter-insurgency like pushing in on a balloon. The volume you displace in one place shows up in another, and returns when you stop pushing in that spot.

** Effective counter-terrorism can go too far.

Getting after al Qaeda -- and figuring out how to avoid turning the aftermath of 9/11 into a war against an entire religion -- was an appropriate response. That meant a small-scale war based largely on intelligence and special operations. But at some point it becomes counter-productive, resulting in an angry reaction that is worse than the benefit of eliminating enemies.

Take the night raids in Afghanistan and elsewhere. I fear that too many of the folks being raided are not so much hard-core jihadists eager to strike across the world against modernity as they are dispossessed young people cut out of the spoils available in their society. If that's the case, bad reactions are inevitable.

Then there are the drone strikes. These strikes by most accounts have been effective at getting jihadist cadres. But there are quite a few people who don't fall in that category who have died, too. At a certain point, drone strikes create more opponents than they destroy. Are we at that point now? I don't know, and suspect not. But we may be getting uncomfortably close to it.

** Destroying the attackers of 9/11 does not mean the end of jihadism.

There are few viruses more powerful and replicable than an idea. Jihadism is an idea, an idea which can spread more easily than ever in a wired/wireless society. Ultimately it is the idea, and the things that give rise to the idea -- poverty, despair, oppression, ignorance, hatred -- that must be addressed, tamped down, re-channeled.

** Our fossil fuel dependency makes us weak.

It's ironic that the oil industry and its attendant modes of transportation are draped in the iconography of power. For our dependence on fossil fuels -- very roughly speaking, the same as it was before the first Arab oil embargo in 1973, spurred by our intervention on Israel's side in the Yom Kippur War -- makes us vulnerable and weak.

Prices went up and basically stayed up. And since oil is a global market, you can "drill baby drill" all you want and the price will stay high.

The threat of war keeps oil prices up, too, and we have been very deeply engaged, at war or on the verge of war, in Islamic oil producing regions for going on 40 years.

Fossil fuel dependency has aligned us with dictators -- resource-extractive economies generally create very conservative politics -- and one thing we know about dictators is that they always, in the end, breed revolution. Which means that America, that historic beacon of freedom and democracy for the world, founded on the principles of the Enlightenment, ends up looking like anything but to the folks eager to get rid of the dictators.

And let's not forget that the frozen Arctic Sea has turned into the slushy at the top of the world this summer, a very ominous development for the climate and the future. Not that many are noticing.

** Our political and media cultures have learned very little since 9/11.

But for all the evident lessons to be drawn, it's still Groundhog Day in our political and media cultures. Insularity and ADD tend to cause that.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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