Kenneth R. Hendrix/U.S. Navy
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a chance that the world's last remaining superpower and other nations could begin to relate to each other with a new sense of empathy. Unfortunately, the attacks of 9/11 showed that although the United States does not necessarily stand alone, it does stand apart.
The terrible events of 9/11 reminded my countrymen that the United States is a country that enemies will find, whether we go looking for them or not. Extremists in dozens of countries are not waking up every morning to plot attacks on Argentina, Barbados, or Colombia. The United States remains the ultimate target of nihilist extremists who distort religion as a justification for murdering innocent men and women. We can try to behave as if that were not the case, but that sort of self-delusion could put the lives of innocent U.S. citizens at risk.
"We now confront a new set of threats to our internal well-being and credibility as a nation. And they are threats of our own making."
I recall watching the attacks of 9/11 on television screens in a conference center in Lima, Peru, where delegates from throughout the Americas met to sign the Inter-American Democratic Charter. It was a traumatic moment for everyone assembled, and I noted the look of genuine sympathy in their eyes at that hour. Within 10 days, signatories to the so-called Rio Treaty invoked the agreement's mutual defense provision declaring that an attack against one is an attack against all. It was out of a sincere sense of solidarity that, in the following months, governments from throughout the region joined in approving a series of anti-terrorism measures to deny terrorists the means to mount similar attacks against any state in the Hemisphere.
With subsequent attacks in Bali, Madrid, and London, it became clear that such violence could happen in other countries. But, let there be no mistake: the United States is the prime target. And we are the country that can never let down its guard to these extremists. That was the basis for our decisions to enter Afghanistan and Iraq.
The decision to deliver an ultimatum to the Taliban rulers in Kabul and to subsequently attack Afghanistan was accepted by most countries as justifiable, reasonable response. With regard to Iraq, only a handful of countries from the Americas joined in the decision based on UN resolutions and in solidarity with the United States. It is not surprising that countries most impacted by terrorism – including Colombia and El Salvador – were among our allies in the early days of that conflict. However, it is important to recall that very close friends in Canada, Chile, and Mexico used their votes in the UN Security Council to oppose the decision to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Their opposition – compounded years later by our decision to press on with the then troubled mission in Iraq – drove a wedge between the United States and many of our neighbors and friends that remains to this day.
Although I understand completely President George W. Bush's crucial decisions in his days as a war-time president, one dramatic sentence intended to pull the world together in the days after 9/11 had unintended consequences. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” he said on September 20, 2001, in a speech to the U.S. Congress. Perhaps his message was aimed at the frontline states like Pakistan that were playing a double game, giving aid to terrorists while pretending to be our friend. However, that absolute statement appeared to impose our President's values and judgments on sovereign governments that were accountable to their own people and not to Washington. Even the friendliest government cannot do that. So we started to drift apart.
As the war in Iraq appeared to bog down and President Bush's policies came under withering criticism in the United States, foreign governments were content to keep their distance from the United States. Some leaders valued their relations with Bush but bilateral ties were based on transactions and not any sense of common purpose.
Hugo Chávez seized the opportunity to sow division and his anti-American agenda. Late in his second term, Bush was not eager to confront Chávez, and President Obama's team has turned a blind eye to Caracas and its dangerous liaisons. The lack of attention to the region has invited troubling alliances between the Chávez regime and narcotraffickers, Middle Eastern terrorists, and Iran that pose a grave and growing threat.
The global financial meltdown, two costly wars, and profligate spending by both political parties in the United States have contributed to our economic woes and fiscal crisis. As a result, we have forfeited our traditional credibility as advocates of free market economics or liberalized trade with countries in the region.
The attackers of 9/11 expected us to pay a very dear price on that September morning. And we did. However, we did not bow to demands of terrorists. Instead, we have made great strides in dismantling the Al Qaeda threat, demonstrated by the killing of Osama Bin Laden and his chief lieutenants. As a result, we are much less vulnerable to the threat of Islamic extremism than we were a decade ago. However, we now confront a new set of threats to our internal well-being and credibility as a nation. And they are threats of our own making.
Moreover, in our zealous self-defense, we have made decisions that widened the gap between us and some natural allies, neighbors, and partners. We must recognize these differences and decide how to overcome them so we can move forward once again with like-minded countries in the Americas.
It is fair to say that the internal threat to the United States of fiscal irresponsibility, economic stagnation, and unemployment far exceeds the external challenge of international terrorism. We cannot let our guard down against terrorism. However, we must now put our own house in order, to bring government spending under control, to encourage economic growth and job creation, and to restore a sense of solidarity, as Abraham Lincoln once prayed, among ourselves and with all nations.
Doing all these things may prove harder than destroying Al Qaeda. However, if we fail in these tasks, the attacks of 9/11 will continue to exact an indirect but heavy price.
Roger Noriega is a visiting fellow at AEI.