Eighteen years ago today, in what would be the deadliest assault by a geopolitical foe on U.S. soil since the War of 1812, the global jihad struck the most lethal blow in the history of its wretched movement. The 9/11 airline hijackers were largely trained and funded by Wahhabist/Salafist Sunni zealots based in Saudi Arabia, were substantially aided by the terrorist Iranian regime, and were protected and mollycoddled by Taliban Islamists.
It was not amorphous “terrorism” — an easily malleable linguistic concept — in the abstract that killed those three thousand people on 9/11. It was a much more clearly identifiable and unmistakable foe: genocidal Islamic jihadism.
It is astonishing to ponder that those born now will be eligible to serve in the U.S. military despite being born after 9/11. For those fresh new military recruits, 9/11 will be ingrained in their consciences as but one of many distant historical events — akin to the Vietnam War, the Pearl Harbor attacks, or perhaps even the Battle of Gettysburg. That is a downright harrowing thought for those of us for whom 9/11 was a seminal — perhaps life-changing or career trajectory-altering — event.
Crucially, these impressionable 18-year-old military recruits have grown up thinking of 9/11 and the corresponding bipartisan military adventurism overseas as inextricably linked. It is, of course, true that the Taliban in Afghanistan harbored the al-Qaeda militants who took down the Twin Towers. But it is also true that Afghanistan has already become this generation’s Vietnam: A seemingly interminable struggle in a faraway land for which there seems no way out.
While there is a prudent and responsible “third way,” far too often our foreign policy and national security discourse in the post-9/11 era has been oversimplified to a most regrettable dichotomy: That between George W. Bush-era moralistic interventionist neoconservatism and a fanatical isolationism that has never seen a foreign threat worth seriously engaging. For the young generation that has intellectually matured in the proverbial shadow of this oversimplified discourse, 9/11 and our subsequent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are solidified in the mind as part and parcel of Bush-era military interventionism.
As Americans continue to die, eighteen years later, fighting in third-world sharia hellholes to try to quixotically impose Madisonian democracies upon Islamists who effectively live in the seventh century, the public will to fiscally fund and morally support our campaigns naturally wanes. While that support wanes, the isolationist Tucker Carlson wing of the foreign policy Right markedly ascends. But Tucker Carlson-esque thinking on foreign policy is exceedingly dangerous. If 9/11 taught us anything, it taught us that real evil exists in this earthly realm — and that evil must be soberly assessed and unambiguously thwarted, lest we succumb to its tyranny. Evil loves a geopolitical vacuum, and there is no greater vacuum than when the post-World War II United States entirely withdraws itself from the world.
The problem is that, no matter its flaws, Carlson’s isolationism will continue to gain momentum so long as it is juxtaposed with the overly sanguine Pollyannaism of those who would moralistically intervene and seek to build Enlightenment-style Western nation-states in sharia-governed desert backwaters. The onus, therefore, falls on those of us true, non-neoconservative counter-jihadi hawks to articulate and advocate for a compelling foreign policy vision that both soberly reflects upon the excesses of bipartisan moralistic interventionism gone awry and rejects the unyielding demands of the “bring America home” isolationists.
There is much to be said about what this vision looks like, and my hope is that future columns will help further contribute to the development of this “third way.” But instead of deploying U.S. military assets for dictator-toppling and nation-building purposes, a “third way” hawkish foreign policy would focus upon utilizing the tools of soft power, “draw and strike”-style lesser hard power maneuvering, hard deterrence (e.g., strategic naval asset deployment), statecraft, and sanctions/finances to achieve its goals: To thwart jihadism and deter the hegemonic ambitions of other non-jihadist geopolitical foes, such as Russia and China.
The U.S. should label the leading Mexican cartels as State Department-recognized foreign terrorist organizations. The U.S. must label the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the intellectual progenitor of all contemporary Sunni jihad, as a terrorist group. The U.S. must defund the Lebanese Armed Forces, given that the entire Lebanese military apparatus has been overrun by Hezbollah. The U.S. must amp up pressure on Qatar and Turkey, which have both long surpassed Saudi Arabia as the leading global bankrollers of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Sunni madrasas alike.
In terms of immigration, the U.S. must focus not just on a border wall but also on interior enforcement: After all, two of the 9/11 hijackers — who should, of course, have never received visas in the first instance — were present in the country on that fateful day due to overstaying their visas. Two of the 9/11 hijackers, in other words, were illegal aliens still presently in the country due to a lack of robust interior enforcement.
Why on Earth, for that matter, has the U.S. continued to implement a lax immigration policy that continues to voluntarily bring the very problem we claim to be fighting overseas to our own shores? Has the development of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) large Somali immigrant community into the nation’s largest terrorist recruitment hub taught us nothing? Why are we not implementing an immigration policy for the Islamic world that, while allowing for dispensations, starts from a default baseline level of effectively zero? None of the 9/11 hijackers should have been in the United States and, distressingly, our inadequate immigration “vetting” procedures are oftentimes hopeless in attempting to prevent the next importations of jihadist evil.
But a true “third way” foreign policy approach — a common-sense approach that can repel the nostrums of Tucker Carlson’s isolationism and moralistic interventionism alike — must begin with a sober assessment of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. There is no reason whatsoever for the U.S. to still deploy large swaths of troops to Afghanistan. Our fanciful efforts to democratize a seventh century-dwelling bastion of Islamism has manifestly failed, and will never succeed. But even more germanely, there is no present security threat from Afghanistan itself. Unlike Iran, the world’s most dangerous Islamist nation and number one global funder of jihad, Afghanistan has no nuclear weapon program or expressed desire to develop intercontinental ballistic missile technology, does not fund jihadist outfits or targeted assassinations overseas, and poses no genuine threat to American interests other than the radicalization of Afghans themselves.
It turns out that there is a much simpler and more cost-effective method of dealing with the Afghanistan problem than a seemingly endless military presence — with the concomitant constant risk of “green-on-blue” violence. Instead, U.S. policymakers ought to simply amp up border security, interior enforcement, and set Afghan visas to zero. A meaningful withdrawal from Afghanistan, furthermore, would allow genuine counter-jihadi hawks to demonstrate to isolationists that they have no interest in occupying or democratizing every sharia hellhole the world over. And it would save much-needed intellectual, moral, financial, and military capital that must be conserved for a potential showdown with genuine jihadi state actor threats, such as Iran.
By recalibrating our post-9/11 counterterrorism strategy to focus less on nation-building and more on genuine deterrence, clearly defining military missions for our men and women in uniform, amping up border security at home, cutting immigration from the Islamic world, and conserving financial and military capital for future showdowns with the Iran-Muslim Brotherhood-Qatar-Turkey axis of Islamism, hawks will go a long way toward showing that they have learned the lessons of moralistic interventionism gone awry. In so doing, they will also begin the process of repelling the noxious rise within the conservative movement of those pernicious isolationists whose discredited ideas risk such profound harm.