A war that won’t end:
Thus neither side won the Twenty Years’ War. Victory would mean achieving core aims at an acceptable cost relative to the benefits. Al-Qaeda did meet some of its goals: With limited resources, bin Laden gained incredible notoriety and inflicted enormous damage on a great power. In 2003, U.S. troops left Saudi Arabia—the key goal outlined in the 1996 manifesto. In 2004, bin Laden released a video that compared the costs of the 9/11 attacks to al-Qaeda versus the United States: “Al-Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event, while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost—according to the lowest estimate—more than $500 billion, meaning that every dollar of al-Qaeda defeated a million dollars.”
But in a broader analysis, bin Laden failed. Yes, U.S. forces left Saudi Arabia, but they did so voluntarily, after Saddam was toppled. Crucially, al-Qaeda was unable to mobilize Muslims around a strict Islamist identity that transcended other loyalties. As Charles Kurzman showed in his book The Missing Martyrs, after 9/11, fewer than one in every 100,000 Muslims became jihadist terrorists. The vast majority of Muslims completely reject bin Laden’s ideology. And national, tribal, and other local identities remain profoundly important from the Palestinians to the Pakistanis. From 2003-2011, confidence in bin Laden collapsed in many Muslim-majority countries, falling from 59 percent to 26 percent in Indonesia, and from 56 percent to 13 percent in Jordan. In a 2013 poll taken in 11 Muslim countries, a median of just 13 percent had a favorable view of al-Qaeda, whereas 57 percent had an unfavorable view.
Al-Qaeda’s loss is not U.S. gain:
Let’s turn first to the United States on offense: the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Recounting the costs is numbing: over 7,000 Americans killed, tens of thousands of soldiers seriously wounded, trillions of dollars expended, and over 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq alone. And there’s the wider impact of spending on America’s debt, of enhanced interrogation and torture on the U.S. global image and ethical standing, and of seemingly endless quagmires on domestic political unity.
In an interview, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, told me, “The Iraq War was unnecessary, self-damaging, demoralizing, delegitimizing, and governed primarily by simplistic military assumptions that didn’t take into account the regional mosaic in which Iraq operates and the internal mosaic inside Iraq.”
The eclipse of al-Qaeda by ISIS is a loss for al-Qaeda but not a gain for the United States. ISIS is an even more ruthless and capable adversary.
Does idealism hurt the United States (and are believers responsible for imbuing America with too many ideas?)?
But the main combatants in the struggle lost for similar reasons: They were hobbled by ideology. Al-Qaeda’s vision of austere Wahhabi Islam and endless global jihad is profoundly unappealing to the vast majority of Muslims. But ideology also shaped U.S. strategy, sometimes in dangerous ways. American idealism is one of the country’s most attractive qualities, central to its moral standing and “soft power.” But idealism also helped to frame the Twenty Years’ War as a struggle between good and evil, which required grandiose goals to topple regimes and build beacons of freedom in the Middle East. It also encouraged Americans to lump terrorists and rogue states together into a big bucket of bad guys. At the same time, Americans are also hostile to the whole notion of nation-building, often seeing stabilization missions as a kind of big-government welfarism, and not something that the country’s warriors should be doing. In a recent foreign-policy speech, Donald Trump said, “ISIS will be gone if I’m elected president,” but at the same time, the United States will be “getting out of the nation-building business.” This combination of beliefs is as American as apple pie.
As a result, the United States is an impatient crusader: eager to smite tyrants and terrorists but unwilling to invest the time and resources needed to win the peace.