It has now been nine years since al Qaeda attacked the United States. And it has been nine years of America primarily focusing on the Islamic world. Over this period of time, the United States has engaged in two multi-year, multi-divisional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, inserted forces in other countries in smaller operations and conducted a global covert campaign against al Qaeda and other radical jihadist groups.
In order to understand the last nine years, we must understand the first 24 hours of the war — and recall our own feelings in those 24 hours. First, the audacious nature of the attack was both shocking and frightening. Second, we did not know what was coming next.
At the root of our panic was a profound lack of understanding of al Qaeda, particularly its capabilities and intentions. Since we did not know what was possible, our only prudent course was to prepare for the worst. Nothing symbolized this more than the fear that al Qaeda had acquired nuclear weapons and that they would use them against the United States. The evidence was minimal, but the consequences would be overwhelming.
What happened was that an act of terrorism was allowed to redefine U.S. grand strategy. The United States operates with a grand strategy derived from the British — maintaining the balance of power. For the United Kingdom, maintaining that balance in Europe protects any one power from emerging that could unite the continent and build a fleet to invade Britain or block its access to the mainland.