From 9/11 to Syria, Has the U.S. Learned Anything?
While the 12th anniversary of 9/11 is reminisced upon as both a terrible loss and example of American resilience, most of the headlines on the anniversary reflect President Obama's September 10 speech concerning the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria. Well, the timing really couldn't be more symbolic. 9/11 was largely responsible for the U.S.'s ongoing interest in the region.
But have we learned anything? Considering that a Syrian strike isn't off the table, and Al-Qaeda's main grievance against the U.S. remains American heavy military presence in the region, the answer seems to be no. The U.S. is better at creating its enemies than quelling them.
President Obama's speech embraced the hope of a peaceful situation (if peaceful means that Syrian rebels will still be killed by conventional means) via talks of a U.N. resolution and plan for the handoff of Syria's chemical weapons. However, it didn't take the plan for targeted strikes off the table; it just delayed them. While Senator Rand Paul's response pointed out the lack of a "clearly defined mission" as a problem, any mission has its consequences. The U.S.'s role within the region has already spawned the problems that have plagued the U.S. since before 9/11.
Look to Al-Qaeda. Their war against the U.S. and the West started before 9/11, so naturally their reason for their grievances also preceded this. One of Al-Qaeda's great grievances was the presence of the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. This was problematic among many Muslims, but those in poor conditions ripe for the growth of terrorism now had a purpose. The U.S. military had bases in a country with two of the holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. From the perspective of the U.S., the military presence was critical to preventing Iraqi troops from crossing into Kuwait.
Regardless, Al-Qaeda was not only able to orchestrate attacks against the U.S., but it was also able to recruit more support. So, when the U.S. went into Afghanistan following 9/11, it created another generation of radicals to be had. Why? Well, Al-Qaeda gained a valuable propaganda tool and was able to exploit the opening to provide opportunities for its fighters to attack American troops directly in their home turf.
It isn't just Al-Qaeda though. That war was primarily fought against the Taliban, and now generations of Afghans caught in the crossfire remember that their families were killed during the U.S.-led war. The same can be said for the war in Iraq, and drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.
So, when President Obama states in his speech that "The United States military doesn't do pinpricks" in his response to skepticism about limited targets, he would be correct ... but only if he was referring to the effect that American military action would have on radical mobilization and not the effectiveness of a strike on Syrian regime targets. U.S. military strikes are bound to create enemies.
This isn't to promote isolationism, or rule out the U.S. military, or to deny human rights. Rather, it's crucial to understand how U.S. foreign policy has affected the world since 9/11. There is no way to eliminate all of the enemies the U.S. faces but there may be ways to mitigate their propagation. Here's hoping those lessons were learned.