A University of Virginia history professor says the events of Sept. 11, 2001, did not change the world or American foreign policy.
Speaking at a forum at UVa’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, Melvyn Leffler said that foreign policy initiative’s adopted by President George W. Bush and his advisers following 9/11 were actually continuations of long-term trends in American foreign policy.
“The policies that have garnered the most ridicule — prevention, preemption and democratic peace — aren’t new; they’re embedded in U.S. foreign policy,” Leffler said.
According to Leffler, incidents such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War point to preventative wars being much older than the wars that followed Sept. 11, 2001. Rather, Leffler said, the attacks caused a sea change in the Bush administration’s foreign policy.
Leffler added that the policies of preemptive strike and preventative warfare that the Bush administration adopted post-9/11 wound up being counter-productive to their intended goal. In the wake of American response to 9/11, Leffler said, distaste for America grew, as did the global terror threat and membership in al-Qaida.
“Rather than thwarting Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist threats, U.S. policies actually grew these threats,” he said.
Despite his assertion that Bush’s policies were counter-effective, Leffler said he wants to use the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as an opportunity to take an objective look at America’s response to the events as a whole.
“Instead of wanton criticism of Bush, I suggest that 10 years after 9/11 it’s more useful as Americans to look deeply at ourselves and the conditions we must wrestle with,” Leffler said. “When we put [9/11] in a larger context, it calls for a re-evaluation of American foreign policy over history and when to use force.”
Charlottesville resident Philip Cooper said he appreciated Leffler’s perspective on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and his balanced criticism of the Bush administration.
“I thought Dr. Leffler presented a fair, balanced and insightful discussion of Bush policies after 9/11 in the context of U.S. foreign policy as a whole,” Cooper said. “While pointing out flaws in the Bush approach, he pointed out a number of successes.”
UVa politics graduate student Kyle Lascurettes said he appreciated Leffler’s careful analysis of Bush policies after Sept. 11.
“I think it’s good to put the Bush administration’s place in history in context and perspective,” Lascurettes said. “We exist in an atmosphere that tends to view everything as a massive change or revolution. I have massive respect for what Leffler is trying to do, which is to pick out what is actually new and extraordinary.”
Fellow graduate student Brandon Yoder agreed.
“Let’s try and re-evaluate foreign policy and put it in context,” Yoder said. “What’s right or not isn’t particularly important, it’s getting the conversation going. That’s where the real value of these talks is.”
Leffler’s remarks to the forum mirrored those in an article he wrote that appeared in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs titled “9/11 in Retrospect: George W. Bush’s Grand Strategy Reconsidered.”
Leffler has written and edited books and articles concerning the history of American foreign policy. His most recent work is “In Uncertain Times: U.S. Foreign Policy After the Berlin Wall and 9/11,” which he co-edited with Jeff Legro.