The 1980s were a kind decade for the United States when it came to its ability to project military power. Coming off the heels of decisive interventions in Grenada and Panama and devastating punitive actions against Libya and Iran, the US’s confidence was gradually restored after its humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s.
The US’s covert support of the Afghan mujahideen followed this trend of foreign policy successes. The well-equipped Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan did the unthinkable and made the Soviets cry uncle. In 1989, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan and in two years’ time the Soviet political experiment dissolved into the annals of history.
Brimming with confidence after giving the Soviet Union its own Vietnam, national security strategists were itching to use US hard power against other states who dared to break liberal internationalist norms.
Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 presented an opportunity for the US war machine to continue flexing machines. And it did so during Operation Desert Storm, where US forces clobbered the Iraqi military and prevented the annexation of Kuwait. The irony of this entire conflict is that the CIA aided Saddam Hussein in his rise to power throughout the 1960s. Later on, Iraq was used as a strategic partner in countering the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. If the world of international relations has taught us anything, it’s that alliances and partnerships can be discarded at the snap of the finger. Those are some of the many perks of being a superpower.
As the Cold War began winding down, the US’s presence in the Middle East heightened. The US’s raw display of military power in the Persian Gulf War left the world awestruck, especially China, which felt compelled to overhaul its entire military modernization program to try to keep up with its American rival. The collapse of the Soviet Union further created the notion that America was in a unipolar moment with no peer competitor on the horizon who could challenge it. For many in the foreign policy blob, America was a force for good that could do no wrong. Liberal democracy was viewed as the only game in town and its global spread was treated as an inevitability.
But hubris has a strange way of blinding those with ideological fixations. While American assistance to the mujahideen helped contribute to the Soviet Union’s dissolution, it came at a massive price, namely, the empowerment of a new enemy in the form of radical Islam. All things considered, the Soviet Union would have collapsed on its own, largely due to its economic system, which reduced it to basket case status.
Plus, significant nationalist resistance from numerous ethnic minorities ranging from Baltic groups to Ukrainians, who all grew exasperated with the Soviets’ universalist project and saw it as an assault on their respective national identities, played a pivotal role in breaking down the Soviet Union’s iron grip. There was no need for the US to intervene in Afghanistan to hasten the Soviet experiment’s inevitable end. Patience has never been a virtue of interventionist zealots. Defeating the Soviets at any cost was the goal, and any concern for unintended consequences went out the door.
The interventionist zeal continued as the US strengthened its footprint in the Middle East. It did not register with US strategists that the presence of the US in the Middle East would eventually earn it new in enemies in the form of Islamic fundamentalists. Indeed, many of these extremists had previously been strange bedfellows of the US in Afghanistan.
That relationship was forged in large part due to the common enemy they were fighting against—the Soviet Union. But that’s as far as that relationship went.
Once the US started ramping up its presence in the Middle East, namely, in areas of the Persian Gulf that are considered holy by devout adherents of Islam, Islamic fundamentalists would begin forming a transnational coalition of terror groups. Al-Qaida was the most prominent of the bunch. Al-Qaida and its affiliates gradually began their attacks against Americans and military assets throughout the 1990s. Some of the most notable attacks were the Aden Hotel bombings, the first World Trade Center bombing, the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the bombing of the USS Cole.
Al-Qaida’s terror network was sending a clear message that it would not tolerate a sustained American military presence in the territories that it viewed as sacred. Still intoxicated by the US’s unipolar status, the national security community could not fathom the idea that its ambitions of primacy abroad would encounter resistance from actors who did not see eye to eye with its universalist vision.
Whatever triumphalist bluster the foreign policy class had throughout the 1990s, it all came to a crashing halt when Al-Qaida pulled off the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, resulting in the murder of nearly three thousand people. The natural response after these horrific attacks was vengeance.
While sober minds like Ron Paul called for the issuance of letters of marques and reprisals, to carry out a more surgical response toward the architects of the 9/11 attacks and their networks, the most enthusiastic social engineers of the foreign policy class used the generalized furor that swept across America in the wake of 9/11 to launch a broader nation-building campaign.
The security establishment was giddy about embarking on a global democratic crusade against any nation that did not submit to the US’s liberal hegemonic order. These voices were able to sway George W. Bush, who ironically campaigned on a relatively restrained foreign policy platform, and influenced his foreign policy vision post-9/11. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech was characteristic of his shift in foreign policy strategy. In this diatribe, Bush singled out countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Sudan as part of an axis of rogue states that must be forced to kneel before the US.
From that point forward, the US’s foreign policy took on a global democratic character, which resulted in costly military expeditions that served American interests little, though these adventures sure did fatten the pockets of defense contractors, pad the egos of military officials, and provide plenty of sinecures for foreign affairs specialists who were convinced that foreign backwaters could be poked and prodded into accepting liberal democracy. Naturally, none of the individuals who advocated for and carried out these harmful ventures were punished for their malfeasances. That’s the way things go in the Beltway milieu that’s completely detached from reality.