Shadow Government

What our enemies should have learned

America’s entry into the European theater of World War II was a military disaster at Kasserine Pass. We suffered heavy casualties and were pushed back over fifty miles. Taking the measure of this force, the Axis powers were smug — the Americans might be fresh to the fight and have enormous resources, but there was ...

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

America’s entry into the European theater of World War II was a military disaster at Kasserine Pass. We suffered heavy casualties and were pushed back over fifty miles. Taking the measure of this force, the Axis powers were smug — the Americans might be fresh to the fight and have enormous resources, but there was little reason to believe any of their advantages would make a difference.

But after his initial successes against the U.S. military, Rommel wrote worriedly to his wife that although the Americans made mistakes, they were learning from them. And indeed, after our losses in the Tobruk campaign, the American military replaced ineffectual commanders, reorganized units to improve operational control and coordination, trained better fundamental soldiering skills.

Looking back across the decade of America’s response to the al Qaeda threat that resulted in the attacks of September 11th, both our government and our military made assessments and improvements of similar magnitude: revamping our intelligence collection and assessment, developing strategies for countering insurgencies, building intellectual capital on the nature of the threats and means for disrupting and destroying them, finding ways to balance liberties and security in ways our public will support and sustain.

We have made grievous and well-documented mistakes: circumventing legislative and judicial oversight of executive authority, underestimating the difficulty of successful regime change and its associated costs, isolated instances of brutality, misreading what we look like to friends and enemies. We responded to the attacks in ways expensive to ourselves and others.

Yet it is also important to note that our response has for the most part defanged the narrative of our enemies. We have fought our wars with an extraordinary care for being a positive force in shaping those societies. We have had domestic debate about the wars, as every society should, but still demonstrated the determination to prosecute those wars and bear the losses they imposed on us — something our enemies believed we were too dissolute to do. We have demonstrated the resilience to question our own choices and find better solutions with time. We are not the brittle and overbearing leviathan they thought.

Forecasting America’s decline has become a mainstay of punditry, yet the analyses almost always overlook the fact that our political culture and our political system are attuned to solving problems. Granted, it is difficult to see up close, amidst the dust and noise of our messy domestic debates; and our mistakes are many. But we are an impatient culture, one that demands solutions and excels at building better mousetraps.

In other words, America is a society that often doesn’t have it right, but given a little time, generally gets it right. Fortunately, because of our prosperity and strength, our country has a wide margin of error that generally leaves us time to adapt. Whether future conditions will sustain that margin is an important question, but a question for another day. For now, it is enough to be thankful we have had the space to find solutions that have kept our country remarkably safe despite the threats to us.

On this sad anniversary for our country, let us mourn the people, the freedom, and the innocence we lost on September 11th, 2001. But let us also be proud of the vitality of our people and the institutions of our government. For all our mistakes, we have done passably well. And to America’s enemies — al Qaeda and others — that should be as worrying as what Rommel observed in the aftermath of the battle at Kasserine Pass.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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