When president George W. Bush first took office in January 2001, after a disputed election, there were two competing strategic challenges facing the US. First, there were the more traditional risks posed by the rise of China, its growing military prowess in general and its missile capabilities in particular. This was evident in the release of the first ever annual report to Congress on the military power of the People’s Republic of China by the Pentagon in 2001. This report was similar to the ones prepared earlier on the Soviet Union, indicating that China was emerging as the new strategic challenger. Simultaneously, the then defence secretary designate, Donald Rumsfeld, who had led the commission to assess the ballistic missile threat to the US, warned of the threat of a “space Pearl Harbor”, possibly from China.
Second, there was the emerging threat posed by terrorists in general and Al Qaeda and its allies in particular. The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the attack on the USS Cole in Aden in 1998 reflected this trend. The January 2001 release of the report of the US Commission on National Security/21st Century (USCNS/21) led by senators Gary Hart and Warren Bruce Rudman highlighted the evolving danger from terrorism and called for more attention to homeland security. The challenge before the US leadership was: how to balance the two.
The April 2001 incident in the South China Sea, where a Chinese fighter aircraft collided with a US EP-3 military spy plane, sent relations between the countries into a tailspin and indicated that the Chinese challenge would probably preoccupy the Bush presidency. Then came 11 September 2001.
The brazen and vicious attack on the US homeland and the launch of the so-called global war on terror (GWoT) had several implications for US and international security. First, it removed the cape of invulnerability that the US had enjoyed throughout its history. The fact that it took just a handful of people to tear apart this cape—something that even the combined military power of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union failed to do—meant that Washington could never again take its homeland security for granted. The fact that there has not been a single successful attack by a foreigner since 2001 bears testimony to the success of homeland security, although it has come at a cost to other US values.
Second, the US, which always prided itself as a land of immigrants, began to reflect uncharacteristic xenophobic tendencies. By 2004, applications from international students to 90% of American colleges and universities fell significantly. At Texas A&M, international student applications fell by 38%, compelling the then president of the university to lament that “protecting our security requires more than defensive measures; we have to win the war of ideas, too… we simply cannot tolerate a visa process that fails to differentiate quickly and accurately between legitimate scholars and students—and individuals—who may pose genuine security risks.” His name: Robert M. Gates, the former head of the CIA and later defence secretary.
Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Third, although the US had the sympathy and the support of the entire world (barring those who perpetrated the attacks and their supporters), it chose to go down an irrational, unilateralist “with-us-or-against-us” and wars of choice path. It egregiously articulated an alarming preventive war doctrine, singled out countries as part of the “axis of evil” and cocked a snook at seeking United Nations Security Council backing for its military misadventure in Iraq. The efforts of then UN secretary general Kofi Annan to reconcile relations with the world’s premium power were rudely spurned through John Bolton. It was the perfect recipe to alienate friends and make enemies at a time that it could afford neither.
The only exception was improved Indo-US relations, underwritten by the dubious and unpopular civilian nuclear deal. The 2005 Pew Global Attitudes Survey found that 71% of Indians had a favourable view of the US. In fact, the only people who liked the US even more than the Indians were the Americans themselves.
Consequently, the GWoT has cost the US anything between $2 trillion (twice the cost of the Vietnam war) and $4 trillion (the cumulative budget deficit from 2005 to 2010). This was a burden that the country could ill afford at a time the economy was sputtering to a halt and going into reverse.
Finally, despite being the world’s foremost military power, the US was ill equipped for the Afghanistan and Iraq kind of wars. While the threat of being bombed back into the stone age might have posed an existential danger to most of the traditional highly industrialized adversaries of the US, it was unlikely to impress the average Afghan whose precarious existence was close to that of the stone age. Not surprisingly, the mighty US military machine soon ran out of targets and got bogged down in brutal asymmetrical warfare. Only with the advent of drones; equipment to detect and counter the impact of improvised explosive devices (IEDs); and teams of special forces did the tide of war begin to turn. It is telling that in the end it took a small team of men (probably around the same number who carried out the 9/11 attacks) to eliminate the 9/11 mastermind—Osama bin Laden.
Over the past decade, even as the US has made significant progress in countering the terrorism threat, it has almost entirely dropped the ball on China. Despite the EP-3 incident, president Bush made up with Beijing and made four visits—the most by any president to China. Similarly, President Barack Obama’s response to the ritualistic military incident at the start of his presidency (involving a near collision in March 2009 between the USS Impeccable, a surveillance ship, and five Chinese naval vessels shadowing it) was to visit China, bow deeply to the present mandarins and discuss economic issues.
With Washington occupied otherwise over the past decade, an uncontained Beijing sustained its economic growth; consolidated its position in central Asia, Africa, the Middle East and even Latin America; and built up its military sinews. It tested an anti-satellite missile and an anti-carrier missile, modernized its nuclear arsenal, built an aircraft carrier and a stealth plane, and set up a military cyber command. More recently, it has flexed its military muscles well beyond the Taiwan Straits and has challenged the navies of its neighbours as well as other visiting vessels. Although the US defence budget is still five to six times that of China’s, and the technology gap remains formidable, it is starting to narrow. While Beijing is unlikely to overtake Washington anytime soon, it looks dangerously close in the rear-view mirror.
In an effort to correct the pendulum’s swing, the Obama administration is making concerted efforts to disengage from its commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has deliberately held back from greater engagement—both diplomatic and military—in transforming the Middle East and has asked its allies, notably the UK, to take the lead in Libya and, possibly, other countries in the region.
However, it might already be too late to manage the unchallenged rise of China. Partnering with some of China’s neighbours, particularly India, might be one approach; but it is not certain that India is either willing or able to do this (see “Is India ready for prime time?”, Mint, 5 September, at www.livemint.com/primetime.htm).
While the rise of China, with the concurrent decline of the US, as the world’s most dominant power is inevitable, the pace of this change has accelerated over the past decade. That will be the most enduring strategic legacy of the terrible Tuesday 10 years ago.
Sidhu is senior fellow, Centre on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes the fortnightly column, Borderline, for Mint.