Retribution and Its Consequences

One of my teachers, Roy Macridis, was fond of saying that public policy, in particular that which is relative to foreign policy, should be evaluated not for its objectives but for its consequences. The theme that especially grieved him was the Vietnam War, concerning which his pithy affirmation was that the United States had achieved exactly the opposite of what it had set out to accomplish.

Ten years ago, my concern was that the American response to the brutal attacks of 9/11 would bring about precisely the opposite of what was intended. It was obvious that the US government intended to reshape the Middle East’s geopolitical map, and in concept, its thrust was believable, at least at the outset. What was done, both in the region as well as inside the United States, changed the world, not all of it for the better.

In my essay written ten years ago, I ended with this paragraph:

The issue of response and retribution is as complex as the root causes of the conflict. The easy response is to attack in an indiscriminate fashion everything and everybody that looks like a terrorist or that fits some profile or country of origin. History is plagued with examples of perfectly innocent people ending giving up all hope after being ruthlessly tortured or attacked. The problem with liberal societies is that, in order to remain liberal, they have to act within the framework of the rule of law above and beyond the expedient use of authority of firepower. Power has its uses, and it must be employed when it is warranted and in a way that sustains the broader issue of sustaining the liberal democratic values. The battle against terrorism has to be won with the appropriate weapons, those that will produce a better place to live in. To paraphrase John Womack of Harvard: democracy does not produce, by itself, a decent way of living; rather, it is decent ways of living that make democracy possible.

An honest assessment today must conclude that the strategy adopted was successful in averting additional strikes but failed dramatically by upgrading the environment in which terrorism can flourish. To begin with, the United States is a very different country from what it was a decade ago. Security has become paramount and has infringed upon the space of liberty in ways that transcend the security needs. The greatest virtue that the world has historically associated with the United States—the freedom that the individual enjoys—has been eroded, while the tentacles of the security apparatus have firmly entrenched themselves.

As the victim, the United States squandered the extraordinary good will that the attacks had garnered for it. It is obvious that the United States had to respond, but in retrospect, its response was clearly not smart. The United States has lost out in terms of credibility and legitimacy, while it has seen the growth of a resurgent Russia, an emboldened Iran, a collapsing Afghanistan, and a less-than-perfect political arrangement in Iraq. Worse, while the United States has not been directly hit again, the terrorist threat has not abated. Furthermore, the hyperactive American presence in the Middle East has led it to neglect its role and responsibility as the world’s sole superpower.

Surely, as George Friedman has argued, “When you are overwhelmingly dominant, you don’t have to operate with a surgeon’s precision.”1 But the United States has been disoriented, has confused unattainable objectives with long-term strategies, and now has to face the need to redefine its strategy toward the world. Observed from the outside, the United States remains a formidable power that has an ever-more imperial air to it, but that power is one that Americans at large appear very unwilling to assume. Friedman argues that “the overriding necessity for American policy in the decade to come is a return to the balanced, global strategy that the United States learned from the example of ancient Rome and from the Britain of a hundred years ago.”2 Given the experience of the past decade, does that seem feasible?

Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the 9/11 strike was possible not because US defenses were weak but because of a major failure of imagination. Simply put, nobody ever envisioned using planes as missiles. Things have changed, and the United States today is a hardened place, not very amenable to visitors and very aggressive vis-à-vis the rest of the world. These features would seem an ideal foundation for the development of a modern American empire.

Although the concept of empire seems inimical to the very idea of “Americanness,” the United States, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been trying to reshape the world order and has been moving, in a very un-American way, toward what everybody in the globe identifies as the behavior of an imperial power. No one has advanced such a notion in recent years as cogently as Friedman in his book The Next Decade. According to this author, the challenge for the United States in the decade ahead is

to conduct a ruthless, unsentimental foreign policy in a nation that still has unreasonable fantasies of being loved, or at least of being left alone. . . . An unsentimental foreign policy means that in the coming decade the president must identify with a clear and cold eye the most dangerous enemies, then create coalitions to manage it. This unsentimental approach means breaking free of the entire Cold War system of alliances and institutions, including NATO, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations.3

What would it mean for the rest of the world if the United States assumed the role of an empire along the lines proposed by Friedman? From the vantage point of a non-American, the question is somewhat odd. Latin Americans have long seen the United States as an empire, even if reality and perception do not always coincide. However, US intervention in places like Iraq and Afghanistan could hardly be perceived in any other light, much as the US-Mexican War in the nineteenth century or other small wars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries showed.

A new approach to empire might mean more selective military actions, a more strategic approach to world problems, and different definitions for both allies and enemies. I would assume that, in such a scenario, the notion of concentrating so many resources on a single region or issue would change radically. This being said, some issues would not change at all: my country, Mexico, would continue to command the attention of US policymakers simply because it is so important to American security. Overall, however, I have no doubt that a more strategic focus on world problems, assuming that domestic politics were to make this possible, would better serve both the United States and the world.

My concern about any future US strategy is not about its power and capabilities. Those are obviously vast and face no real competition of any kind. My concern today is the same I wrote about ten years ago: what will the United States end up sacrificing in its imperial phase? Perhaps it was Benjamin Franklin who best articulated the concern of many of the Founding Fathers when he informed a woman that they had afforded the country “a republic, if you can keep it.” I wonder whether today’s US officials, those who have run down the economy, are capable of maintaining the republic, of differentiating what matters and what is fundamental from what is superfluous. The evidence from the last decade is not reassuring.

Foreigners have long seen the United States as a safe haven for the rule of law, for freedom of speech and movement, and for extraordinary effervescence and entrepreneurship. Will it remain as powerful a magnet and example during the upcoming decade? Many of the changes that the United States has experienced internally would appear to bode ill. The fact that many Americans dismiss these concerns should be a concern in itself. Negating the obvious does not change its reality. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” The rest of humanity will be watching, hoping the United States will prove to be as capable at handling its foreign affairs as it is at preserving what makes it unique and exceptional. Or that it is capable of sustaining its majesty and exceptionality the way de Tocqueville conceived of it: “The greatness of America lies in her ability to repair her faults.”


Luis Rubio is chairman of CIDAC (Center of Research for Development), an independent research institution devoted to the study of economic and political policy issues. He is a prolific writer on political, economic, and international subjects. His latest book, on Mexico’s emeging middle class, will be published in December 2011 by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

  1. George Friedman, The Next Decade: Where We’ve Been . . . And Where We’re Going (New York: Doubleday, 2011).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 28.