Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, November 5, 2001

Implications of September 11: An American Perspective

by David C. Gompert, President, RAND Europe

September 11 did not so much change the world as show that the world had changed but our means of managing it had not. For the United States – superpower, Great Satan, victim – the awakening means renewed multilateralism plus unabashed assertiveness. It will spawn new US strategies based on far more than military power plus unhesitant use of force when the nation is threatened. For Europeans, closest and ablest of all US allies, the situation means higher expectations and, if and as capabilities and actions match those expectations, more clout. For the United States and Europe, it both demands and opens the path to a more equal and more global partnership, beginning with but not limited to countering terrorism.

Dangers and Illusions

As of that day, our darkest fears about the new era seem to be coming true all at once: elusive terrorists bent on mass murder by suicide and germ attacks; anti-American frenzy in the Muslim world; a humanitarian crisis of biblical scale; an imploding failed state (whose chief export, besides terror, is hard drugs); war in a region where at least five countries – India, Pakistan, China, Israel, Russia – have nuclear weapons; the risk that world oil markets will yet be disrupted. In the face of this, we have learned that national and international institutions devised for a bygone order are inadequate to deal with the new disorder, despite the ample warning we had to update them.

Illusions have ended. For Europeans who had not noticed, insecurity has 'globalized'. An attack on Manhattan, inspired from a cave in Afghanistan and planned in Hamburg and Kuala Lumpur, has torn the fabric of Western life, triggered combat in Central Asia, caused unrest from Nigeria to Indonesia, and fed tension between Pakistan and India. Awareness of global insecurity has already affected the outlooks and actions of US allies. They have offered, in NATO, to take military action outside of Europe in response to an attack outside of Europe. Unfortunately, the forces needed for distant and demanding operations cannot be built overnight. Yet, European defense budgets will likely shift upward as European defense strategies shift outward. The United States could reinforce this by accepting even modest allied offers to fight in Afghanistan.

If Europeans are more aware that security is global, Americans are more aware that global security requires cooperation. The broader the strategy, beyond military force, the greater that requirement. Because the financial, intelligence, criminal and civil protective components of counter-terrorism exceed both the borders and the reach of the superpower, a unilateral campaign will fail, and serious Americans know it.

The Future of American Multilateralism

It is too soon to judge whether renewed US multilateralism is broad and lasting – accepted even when the particulars are not ideal, or just a la carte. The upright stance of the UN Security Council and, as usual, the Secretary General, and US responses toward the UN, give reason to hope. US interest in a UN role in post-Taliban Afghanistan suggests a more creative, though still self-interested, US policy toward the world body.

Will this shifting sentiment reverse US positions on specific conventions: Kyoto, CTBT, ABM Treaty, international code of justice? Not likely. But it could make the United States more inclined to address multilaterally such difficult problems as climate change and renewable energy, nuclear offensive and defensive force limitations, and global law enforcement. Insofar as new openings appear, US negotiating partners would do better to engage US positions on their merits than to ask Washington simply to eat hat and sign.

End of Sanctuary; End of Innocence

The other American illusion to end is, of course, that of sanctuary. Not since the Civil War – Spotsylvania, to be exact – have so many Americans been slain on a single day, and never this many civilians. That terrorists struck the United States is neither new nor strategically significant. That the first mass-destructive terrorist attack should be on the superpower is. It brings home to its citizens the drawbacks of being chiefly responsible for the security of dangerous regions and ungrateful regimes, of being addressee for every grievance, of being hated for reasons neither the hated nor the haters truly comprehend.

With 4000 still buried at the base of the World Trade Center, Americans react with bewilderment and fury to anti-US rallies choreographed by religious militants in countries that their country has supported. The thanklessness of providing security in the Middle East is accepted; but the claim that the United States 'had it coming' is not. It cannot be excluded that anxiety mixed with anger will cause the United States to want out of the front lines of global security, especially in the Middle East. Americans were already more ambivalent than others may think about leading and policing the world.

Though there is no sign yet of political backlash, no voice for retreat, it is early. Still, because US security responsibilities intersect American economic interests, a strategic pull-back is very unlikely, barring failure in the struggle against terrorism (see below). Foreign actions have a greater-than-usual effect on US politics and policies; so far, the net effect is good. The declaration by allies that an attack on America is an attack on all had a big impact and will not be forgotten. The cohesion of the wider coalition is also politically important, signifying that the US cannot yet need not tackle this problem solo.

Homeland Defense

An obvious question is whether the loss of sanctuary could alter US defense priorities, with protection of US territory displacing or at least competing with projection of power. This is illogical and unlikely: Homeland defense is overwhelmingly a civil, not military, responsibility. What military support is needed will come from the reserves, not power projection forces – the latter being less suitable than the former. Moreover, it would be a strategic blunder, which the United States will not make, to signal that a threat against US territory could divert intervention forces. In any case, homeland defense and power projection are two sides of the same coin: on one side, US ability to defend its interests, friends and peace; on the other, US resolve.

As for counter-terrorist military operations, this mission underscores the need to transform and improve the versatility of US forces. While current circumstances politically preclude cutting even old, slow, heavy US force structure, look for that to begin – cautiously – after hostilities end.

September 11 has sharpened, not settled, the question of NMD. A consensus could emerge in favor of unhurried development of a multi-layered capability. (Warning: this may be the author's wishful thinking). A Russian OK to revise the ABM Treaty, and a consequent easing of allied concerns, could take the edge off opposition in Congress.

Catching up with Globalization

Beyond military affairs, the new insecurity demands that institutions and policies be updated in view of globalization. This should entail collaboration in many transnational fields, motivated by but not limited to counter-terrorism:

Thus, as we destroy al Queda and co., we must construct policies, institutions and norms to secure globalization – the way post-war order was planned as earlier wars were being won. This is not as simple, or as impossible, as creating some monolithic supranational governance. It means a variety of international means, with varied purposes and effects on sovereignty. For the United States, famously wary of foreign entanglements, it means sacrificing control in order to advance US interests. US policies in international trade agreements and financial oversight suggest that it is quite capable of such compromises.

Well after al Queda has been torn up, open societies will remain vulnerable to all sorts of harm, including terrorism. This is an unavoidable consequence of five facts of life:

(1) the integration of the infrastructures, links, and systems of the world economy; (2) the fact that our societies and the exchanges among them are based on trust; (3) the inexorable spread of potentially deadly technologies and skills; (4) the prohibitive price, in treasure and freedom, of total security; and (5) complexity.

Better, and shared, intelligence is the most cost-effective way to combat large-scale terrorism, which depends on networks, skills, money, time to plan, and safe haven – each of which increases the chance of detection. But even with better intelligence, we will be vulnerable. Even if we were to constrict personal freedoms, privacy, trust, and convenience beyond acceptable limits, we will be vulnerable. Even with improved international cooperation, we will be vulnerable. And even if we were to devote greater national defense resources and forces to homeland defense, we will be vulnerable.

To some extent, we must and can live with this, provided our intelligence enables us to prevent large attacks. But we must also kill the roots. We are in a race between a growth in our vulnerability and efforts to destroy the basis of large-scale terrorism. To be clear, 'destroying the basis' does not mean meeting terrorists' demands, which would only hurt security (in the Middle East, for example). Rather, it means spreading democracy, thus giving hope and recourse to those masses upon whose disaffection terrorists feed.

New Middle East Politics

In this light, we surely must see that political business-as-usual in the Middle East is not compatible with long-term security, including our own. While other once-dangerous, undemocratic regions have progressed in the past decade or two, the Middle East remains dysfunctional and a thus a source of continuing peril.

Placing blame for September 11 on US policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict misses two important points: First, a promising peace process will incite at least as much anger as the absence of one; after all, al Queda's platform hardly endorses Arab peace agreements with Israel. Intifadas are about winning just peace; jihads are about killing infidels.

Second, it is the wider, deeper politics of the greater Middle East, for which many bear responsibility, that has created a climate conducive to despair and rage. We have turned a blind eye to illegitimate, hypocritical, and malfeasant elites that dread democracy as much as they dread fundamentalism. Let's name names: Saudi Arabia, Gulf sheikdoms, Pakistan, with Egypt and several North African regimes in a second echelon of illegitimacy. The problem is not that our values pollute the Middle East but rather that those values have had no chance to penetrate the closed politics, education, and media policed by the 'moderate' hereditary regimes that we protect.

The West has played Middle East politics so counter-strategically that we are now in a position where we are afraid to attack Iraq for fear of offending the very people Iraq has threatened and could again. Even though we know that Iraq is becoming more dangerous to the region and to us, we are stuck because of the political failings of clients whose politics we have backed. Having ignored the illegitimacy of our so-called friends, we seem to have no alternative but to back them still. The time never seems to be right to insist on reform as the price for, and key to, long-term security. The USA is especially guilty of favoring – indeed, embracing – the devil it knows. But Europeans, oil companies, banks and others have been active accomplices.

Extricating ourselves from this predicament will not be easy. But the United States and Europe need to make a clear strategic decision: either these regimes change or we will not save them. Moral justifications aside, the security risks of not making such a decision are too high. It is not clear that we have the foresight and courage to make such a decision or the skill to implement it without unleashing revolution instead of reform. But if we do not insist on political accountability from our Middle East clients coming out of this crisis, it will be harder to do so next time.

Crucial to this is the need to reduce dependence on oil. Not just imported oil: oil. It is shocking, when one thinks about it, that we depend vitally on a source of energy that lies beyond our control, sits mainly beneath the most unstable corner of the Earth, is managed by actors with unsteady hands and unhelpful interests, requires us to be prepared to fight large and increasingly dangerous wars, and is bad for the environment to boot. The need to begin the shift to renewables is apparent. Failure to do so will perpetuate a political order that is bad for the people of the Middle East, bad for us, and sure to produce future crises. On this, US-EU co-leadership is indispensable.

The Worst Case

There is an alternative to the scenario of destroying the al Quedas of the world and creating a new order. At the moment, it is not under consideration. And it is unlikely in any case to be chosen. However, if the military operations fail, if the coalition splinters, and if global terrorism, Middle East turmoil, and large-scale homeland attacks persist, there could be a strategic retreat. Americans could head for the ramparts of fortress America. Europeans could revert to the regional self-absorption from which they are now emerging. Both could make homeland defense the preoccupation of their military forces. Both could write off the Middle East. The United States could shed the international responsibilities that have made it a target, and Europeans could decline to accept any responsibilities lest they become one.

Globalization, already assaulted at Seattle and Turin, might falter. Private forces of economic integration are strong; however, the essential commitment of states to remove obstacles to integration is less strong. If globalization sputters, what about the hopes of economic growth for us and of development for the poorer societies? What about the entry of China into the community of responsible nations? Are we going to throw the progress of the last twenty years into reverse gear? This is why we cannot fail.

The Centrality of the US-EU Relationship

'Not failing' means maintaining and deepening a strategic coalition. At the coalition's center must be a stronger US-EU partnership. US-European cooperation is relevant to every facet of counter-terrorism. Together, the United States and EU possess most of the economic, technological, military and diplomatic resources for globalizing security. Compared to the US-EU relationship, all others pale. This is the one we must get right.

To get it right, Europeans and Americans will both have to overcome some deep doubts: in the American case, whether Europeans are willing and able; in the European case whether Americans will hear and heed their voices, including an increasingly unified and distinct voice. The last eight weeks are moderately promising.