At Slate, Anne Applebaum is really upset about the war on terror. It’s not that it wasn’t effective in keeping America safe and degrading al-Qaeda. That much she readily acknowledges. She’s upset, rather, because the war on terror failed to resolve issues outside the scope of the war on terror. All issues outside the scope of the war on terror. Honest. That’s the gist of her take. She writes that “the war on terror was far too narrow a prism through which to see the entire planet” before using the war on terror as a prism through which to see the entire planet.
In our single-minded focus on Islamic fanaticism, we missed, for example, the transformation of China from a commercial power into an ambitious political power. We failed to appreciate the significance of economic growth in China’s neighborhood, too. When President George W. Bush traveled in Asia in the wake of 9/11, he spoke to his Malaysian and Indonesia interlocutors about their resident terrorist cells. His Chinese colleagues, meanwhile, talked business and trade.
That’s not all. Applebaum regrets that the war on terror didn’t save Russia from Vladimir Putin; was no help in addressing Latin America and U.S. immigration; made us miss some undefined opportunity in Africa; allowed our roads to deteriorate; didn’t address our energy policy; and “pushed aside our own economic, environmental, and political problems until they became too great to be ignored.”
It’s hard to think of a better endorsement of the war on terror than Applebaum’s column. When all you can say about a policy is that it didn’t fix the entire universe of problems outside its intended aims, you’re talking about one astoundingly successful policy. If the Bush-era national security team were savvy they’d put together a campaign around the idea: “The war on terror—sorry it didn’t fix your roads.”
There’s another shortcoming to Applebaum’s line of argumentation. It doesn’t account for how much worse all those other problems would be if the U.S. had failed to prevent another attack or allowed al-Qaeda to gain ground. If she thinks China ate our lunch as it is, she should consider how Beijing would have exploited a serially attacked and demonstrably weak America. And Putin? The only reset button that ever interested him was one that created a weaker United States. As for our economy, perhaps Applebaum doesn’t remember what 9/11 did to the tourist, insurance, and airline industries and New York’s small business sector. Consider merely that last one: A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in New York determined that “the attack resulted in about 430,000 lost job months and a loss in wages of $2.8 billion. These lost job months were equivalent to approximately 143,000 jobs, each month, for 3 months.”
Let’s not imagine what follow up attacks would have done to the American economy or to the geopolitical chessboard. Instead, let’s be thankful that the worst we can say of the war on terror is that it didn’t rise to every last one of America’s domestic and international challenges.