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Graham Allison

America’s choices — and their costs

By Graham Allison
September 10, 2011

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AMERICA’S LAST 10 years might be called “The Decade the Locusts Ate.’’ A nation that started with a credible claim to lead a second American century lost its way after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Whether the nation will continue on a path of decline, or, alternatively, find our way to recovery and renewal, is uncertain.

The nation began the decade with a growing fiscal surplus and ended with a deficit so uncontrolled that its AAA credit rating was downgraded for the first time in its history. Ten years on, Americans’ confidence in our country and the promise of the American Dream is lower than at any point in memory. The indispensable superpower that entered the decade as the most respected nation in the world has seen its standing plummet. Seven out of every 10 Americans say that the United States is worse off today than it was a decade ago. While many of the factors that contributed to these developments were evident before 9/11, this unprecedented reversal pivots on that tragic day - and the choices made in response to it. Those choices had costs: the inescapable costs of the attack, the chosen costs, and the opportunity costs.

Inescapable costs of 9/11 must be counted first in the 3,000 innocent lives extinguished that morning. In addition, the collapse of the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon destroyed $30 billion of property. The Dow plunged, erasing $1.2 trillion in value. Psychologically, the assault punctured the “security bubble’’ in which most Americans imagined they lived securely. Today, 80 percent of Americans expect another major terrorist attack on the homeland in the next decade.

Were this the sum of the matter, 9/11 would stand as a day of infamy, but not as an historic turning point. Huge as these directs costs are, they pale in comparison to costs of choices the United States made in response to 9/11: about how to defend America; where to fight Al Qaeda; whether to attack Iraq (or Iran or North Korea) on grounds that they had chemical or biological weapons that could be transferred to Al Qaeda; and whether to pay for these choices by taxing the current generation, or borrowing from China and other lenders, leaving the bills to the next generation.

Unquestionably, much of what was done to protect citizens at home and to fight Al Qaeda abroad has made America safer. It is no accident that the United States has not suffered further megaterrorist attacks. The remarkable intelligence and Special Forces capabilities demonstrated in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden suggest how far we have come.

But the central storyline of the decade focuses on two choices made byPresident George W. Bush - his decision to go to war with Iraq and his commitment to cut taxes, especially for wealthy Americans, and thus not to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The cost of his decision to go to war with Iraq is measured in 4,478 American deaths, 40,000 Americans gravely wounded, and a monetary cost of $2 trillion.

Bush justified his decision to attack Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein might arm terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, arguing that “19 hijackers armed by Saddam Hussein. . . could bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.’’ In retrospect, even Bush supporters agree that we went to war on false premises - since we now know that Saddam had no chemical or biological weapons.

Suppose, however, that chemical weapons had been found in Iraq. Would that have made Bush’s choice a wise decision? What about the many other states that had chemical or biological weapons that could have been transferred to Al Qaeda, for example Libya, or Syria, or Iran? What about the state that unquestionably had an advanced nuclear weapons program, North Korea, which took advantage of the US preoccupation with Iraq to develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons and conduct its first nuclear weapons test?

As for cutting taxes for the wealthy, Bush’s decision left the nation with a widening gap between government revenues and its expenditures. Brute facts are hard to ignore: having entered office with a budgetary surplus that the CBO projected would total $3.5 trillion through 2008, Bush left office with an annual deficit of over $1 trillion that the CBO projected would grow to $3 trillion over the next decade.

Finally, and most difficult to assess, are opportunity costs, what could be Robert Frost’s “road not taken.’’ In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the United States was the object of overwhelming international sympathy and solidarity. The leading French newspaper declared: “We are all Americans.’’ Citizens united behind their commander in chief, giving him license to do virtually anything he could plausibly argue would defend us against future attacks.

This rare combination of readiness to sacrifice at home plus solidarity abroad sparked imagination. Would Americans have willingly paid a “terrorist tax’’ on gas that could kick what Bush rightly called America’s “oil addiction’’? Could an international campaign against nuclear terrorism or megaterrorism have bent trend lines that leave Americans and the world increasingly vulnerable to future biological or nuclear terrorist attacks? What impact could $2 trillion invested in new technologies have had on American competitiveness?

That such a decade leaves Americans increasingly pessimistic about ourselves and our future is not surprising. American history, however, is a story of recurring, impending catastrophes from which there is no apparent escape - followed by miraculous recoveries. At one of our darkest hours in 1776 when defeat at the hands of the British occupying Boston seemed almost certain, the general commanding American forces, George Washington, observed: “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.’’

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.