Twilight in Manhattan, Dawn in Tripoli

America did nearly everything wrong in the post-9/11 world. The post-Arab Spring world is our chance to finally get it right.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

I've learned a lot of painful lessons since Sept. 11, 2001. The only consolation is, everybody else has, too -- at least, everybody who is being honest about it. I was "a 55-45er" on the Iraq war: for it, by a hair. I wrote a book about democracy promotion that sharply criticized President George W. Bush's Freedom Agenda, but was still, in retrospect, too optimistic. I thought the counterinsurgency strategy was the right call for Afghanistan. The world is more recalcitrant -- more tragic -- than I was prepared to accept, or than Bush was prepared to hear. This is, of course, the great lesson of realists like Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan; but it would be a terrible irony if the lasting impact of 9/11 on foreign policy was an acceptance of America's helplessness to shape a better world.

One thing we have learned is that no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse. Those of us who supported the war in Iraq at least in part for humanitarian reasons scarcely imagined that life could get worse for Iraqis than it was under Saddam Hussein. But the Iraqi civilian deaths from the war -- now totaling over 100,000, according to figures compiled by Iraq Body Count -- bleakly demonstrate the limits of our imagination. And yes, of course, the Bush administration was criminally negligent in its management of postwar Iraq; but Saddam's brutality had so deeply damaged Iraq that sectarian warfare might have broken out no matter what the United States did.

I’ve learned a lot of painful lessons since Sept. 11, 2001. The only consolation is, everybody else has, too — at least, everybody who is being honest about it. I was "a 55-45er" on the Iraq war: for it, by a hair. I wrote a book about democracy promotion that sharply criticized President George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, but was still, in retrospect, too optimistic. I thought the counterinsurgency strategy was the right call for Afghanistan. The world is more recalcitrant — more tragic — than I was prepared to accept, or than Bush was prepared to hear. This is, of course, the great lesson of realists like Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan; but it would be a terrible irony if the lasting impact of 9/11 on foreign policy was an acceptance of America’s helplessness to shape a better world.

One thing we have learned is that no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse. Those of us who supported the war in Iraq at least in part for humanitarian reasons scarcely imagined that life could get worse for Iraqis than it was under Saddam Hussein. But the Iraqi civilian deaths from the war — now totaling over 100,000, according to figures compiled by Iraq Body Count — bleakly demonstrate the limits of our imagination. And yes, of course, the Bush administration was criminally negligent in its management of postwar Iraq; but Saddam’s brutality had so deeply damaged Iraq that sectarian warfare might have broken out no matter what the United States did.

Another lesson we have learned is: Just because we must do something doesn’t mean that we can do it. The 9/11 attacks persuaded Bush and his top aides that the United States could no longer afford to ignore failed or autocratic states that germinated terrorism — thus the Freedom Agenda. As Bush majestically phrased it in his second inaugural address, "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." Policymakers thus needed to find instruments — including but scarcely limited to regime change — to reach inside states. The insight was correct, but Bush quickly discovered the limits of the American capacity to shape countries for the better. In 2005, he tried to push Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to hold free and fair elections. But when Mubarak realized that such elections would bring the opposition to power, he cracked down hard. Again, you can blame the Bush administration — and I did — for abandoning the Freedom Agenda out of fear that it might bring Islamists to power and for undermining its rhetoric with the abusive treatment of detainees in the war on terror. But the truth is that the United States lacked the instruments to produce the change it sought.

President Barack Obama, convinced that Bush had effectively poisoned the idea of democracy promotion, put a stop both to the grandiose language and to the impossible expectations it aroused. In the summer of 2009 he was criticized for holding his tongue when the Iranian regime rigged an election to block reformers from wining seats. But Obama understood that U.S. interference might do more harm than good; he was well schooled in the limits of the possible. During that same period, however, Obama was being driven to the conclusion — very reluctantly, by most accounts — that the only way the United States could win the war in Afghanistan was by helping the Afghans create a legitimate government. And so he accepted the logic of the counterinsurgency war that Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal proposed to fight there.

At the time, in the early fall of 2009, I was writing an article about Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden kept telling me — and of course Obama and anyone else who would listen — that the policy wouldn’t work and wasn’t necessary. But Obama concluded that it was necessary, and therefore had to work — at least well enough to allow the United States to leave behind a functioning Afghan government.

It hasn’t worked. Classic counterterrorism tactics have done a very effective job of wiping out Taliban leaders, but the Taliban keep regenerating thanks to the Afghan government’s scant legitimacy. Endless American efforts to get Afghan President Hamid Karzai to behave other than the way he is inclined to behave have come to nothing. But does that necessarily mean that Biden was right? His argument was always, "It’s Pakistan, stupid." The experience of the last few years, however, has shown both that the United States has far less leverage over Pakistan’s military leaders than it thought, and that Pakistan’s pathologies are even deeper than we understood. Is there any graver example in the world of "We must, but we can’t"?

And so there is much to feel chastened about. Last year Peter Beinart, a former New Republic editor and a liberal supporter of the Iraq war, repented with a vengeance by writing The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Beinart came down so hard on poor Woodrow Wilson, and on Wilsonian idealism in foreign affairs, that the Council on Foreign Relations’ Leslie Gelb, an arch-realist, took him to task in the New York Times Book Review. Idealism is not, or rather need not be, a species of hubris; it was, after all, Wilson’s explicit and eloquent appeal to national ideals that persuaded a very reluctant American public to enter World War I.

There is a very real danger that our reaction to the discovery that we can’t do everything will be to conclude that we can’t do anything. We should rein in our hubris, tend to our own garden, patrol our own borders (and Persian Gulf sea lanes too, of course). We should not, in John Quincy Adams’s now-much-quoted phrase, go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. But as we learned on 9/11, the world beyond our borders can do terrible harm to us, as it could not in 1821. And it can, lest we forget, bring great benefit as well.

We have been given a second chance to get things right. Just as the last decade began with the terrorist attacks, this one has begun with the Arab Spring. It is, in effect, 2002 once more: We stand at the very beginning of a new moment in history, its outcome very much unknown. And, of course, what is centrally different about this moment is that the peoples of the Arab world have acted on their own. The irrelevance of outsiders has made it impossible for Arab autocrats to discredit the democratic movement, as they were able to do in the face of Bush’s blustering about freedom, and as the Iranian government sought to do in 2009. And yet we have just seen overwhelming proof that outsiders can decisively tip the scales on behalf of Arab peoples.

I am thinking, of course, of Libya. The NATO bombing campaign dislodged Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime without undermining the rebels’ own legitimacy. Conservatives now belabor Obama for "leading from behind," or letting France — France! — take the lead; but Obama understands that the Arab Spring is not some sort of test of American power or primacy. American capacities were indispensable to the NATO effort, but no one can say that America delivered Tripoli to the rebels. That’s not a bad model for the future.

It is, of course, no secret that American firepower can work wonders. But now the hard part begins. In Libya, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the tyrant is gone, and the burden of creating a future different from the past has fallen on people with no experience of self-government. This is where democracy promotion becomes very real, but also very unglamorous. Libya doesn’t need money — save for its own unfrozen assets — but it will need a lot of diplomatic hand-holding and help with the establishment of political parties, electoral commissions, a parliament, and so on.

OK, maybe that’s not so hard. Here are some hard questions: What are we going to do in Egypt if the Muslim Brotherhood captures a plurality of seats in elections this fall? Are we going to say that democracies disqualify themselves when people freely choose Islamists? And what about Bahrain, where Obama was bold enough to publicly demand reform — and where the regime has carried out a Potemkin version of dialogue with the opposition? Is Obama prepared to threaten serious consequences, or will he back down in the name of preserving alliances, as Bush did in Egypt in 2005?

Obama has often expressed his admiration for Niebuhr and the realists. He will err on the side of restraint. Perhaps, with all we’ve been through, that’s a good thing.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.