Ross Douthat argues in the New York Times that "It's Still the 9/11 Era
In an op-ed that almost reads as a glancing rebuttal to our Atlantic essay
describing how the War on Terror ended, Douthat argues that we have not yet emerged from a 9/11 era defined by a martial approach to terrorism and a foreign policy promoting democracy in the Muslim world.
This formulation of the '9/11 era' is suspect on both accounts. First, a purely criminal justice approach to terrorism cannot be an essential criterion for judging the end of the 9/11 era. There are strong arguments suggesting we should use such an approach. But the United States has never been shy about using military force against dangerous threats. The Clinton Administration's missile strikes targeting Osama bin Laden -- to say nothing of its aggression against potentially dangerous domestic groups or America's long history of covert warfare against non-state actors -- suggests that extrajudicial killing of enemies is not a marker of the '9/11 era.'
As for his second criterion, democracy promotion in the Middle East: the United States invaded Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda and their Taliban hosts. We invaded Iraq over ginned up fears that Saddam Hussein would transfer WMDs (he did not have) to terrorists (he was not connected to). In both cases, democracy promotion merely became necessary once vacuums of authority threatened to leave the territories lawless safe-havens for terrorists. That Obama uses the rhetoric of democracy promotion should not mark him as a '9/11 era' president any more than it would mark Kennedy, Roosevelt, Jefferson, Washington, or indeed every single American president in our history.
In any case, the substance and timbre of US counterterrorism policy have changed dramatically since the first two years of Bush's War on Terror. Ethnic profiling, 'enhanced' interrogation, preventative detention, and the aggressive stance of our military occupations have all been dialed back significantly as US security officials have recognized the wisdom in fostering cooperative relationships with the communities they contact while reserving their uses of force for selected surgical strikes.
Douthat could not have known this at the time he wrote, but his fear of a "possibly permanent military footprint in Iraq" also appears to be unfounded. As Fox News reported today, Obama and his Iraqi partners have tentatively agreed that only 3,000 US troops will stay on in Iraq as advisers after December 31st. Even if the number is jiggered up a bit by the end of the year, there is no arguing that our military operations in both countries have significantly shifted first from invasion to counterinsurgency, and now counterinsurgency to counterterrorism and institution building.
I might charitably agree with Douthat (a writer I often enjoy) that we are not entirely out of the woods yet. But, the forest is thinning significantly. We are well past the War on Terror and you can even make out the horizon enough to see the sun setting on his "9/11 era."