“It’s a game changer in terms of the issues that will be bruited in the presidential election campaign,” said Steven Simon, a visiting lecturer at Dartmouth College.
Otherwise, it will likely spur only the usual reexamination of possible security weaknesses that typically follows these kinds of attacks, he said, referring to such efforts in New York City in particular.
“Everything’s a game-changer,” he said. “Everything’s a wake-up call, everything’s somebody’s 9/11. God knows after 1941 how many things were somebody’s Pearl Harbor. So I’m not inclined to think in those terms.”
He appeared with Jonathan Stevenson, professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College, to discuss the recent Foreign Affairs article they coauthored, “The End of Pax Americana: Why Washington’s Middle East Pullback Makes Sense.” The Nov. 18 event was hosted by Fordham Law’s Center on National Security and moderated by its director, Karen Greenberg, PhD.
Both men served in the Obama administration— Stevenson as the U.S. National Security Council staff’s director for post-military affairs for the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 to 2013, and Simon as director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the White House from 2011 through 2012.
Stevenson agreed the attacks can change things in the “limited context” of presidential politics.
Conservatives, for example, might argue that if “we’d gone into Syria harder … then we could have done more to bog down ISIS and distract its attention from out-of-area attacks,” he said.
But he offered an easy counterargument: “If we’d done that, and weakened them there, it would have been all the more reason to undertake operationally less challenging terrorist attacks … in loosely defended Western cities.”
The speakers said that the Obama administration’s pullback from the Middle East makes sense in light of “what’s going on there” as opposed to “what’s going on in Washington,” in Stevenson’s words.
Simonson said the Middle East’s civil wars “have taken on a decidedly sectarian character,” making it unlikely the United States would heed its allies’ pleas to get involved.
The conflict in Syria is a case in point.
“It would be awkward, to say the least, for us to get integrally involved, say, with some kind of ground deployment in what is at its core a sectarian war,” said Stevenson, “and very difficult for us to extricate ourselves from it once we were there.”
“It seems to me we learned this lesson with arguably an even simpler scenario, and a less complicated one, in Iraq.”
Simon noted other constraints on American action in the Middle East, like the eventual costs—on the order of $4 trillion—of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the need to prepare for China’s rising military influence.
“The Chinese are spending like there’s no tomorrow, and they’re allocating their money to technologies and capabilities that are designed specifically to impede U.S. maritime operations in the Western Pacific,” he said. “The United States needs to do a lot of investment in that domain.
“You’ve got this global picture and you’ve got this budgetary situation that have sort of bumped up against political dynamics internal to the Middle East, [and]that have made gains from intervention [there]really rather low,” he said. “I mean, vanishingly low, at this stage.”