The Road to 9/11

James Goldgeier describes how when the Cold War ended, America was left without an obvious enemy.
  • Transcript


Topic: The Road to 9/11

James Goldgeier:  Well I'd start with really the uncertainty created by 11/9 and the ensuing collapse of communism because you had this fixed super-power rivalry that had gone on for four decades, the Cold War was dominant in the way we thought about international affairs and then, poof, it's over. And, how do you now think about the world that you live in? And what's the role for the United States in that world? Now, all of a sudden, after the Cold War is over, and with the Soviet collapse at the end of 1991, United States is standing as the lone superpower and grappling in a period in which there's no obvious enemy, and the United States has so much power, sort of what to do. And that is really the story we try to tell in this book is, how people who are, you know, sort of in the world of ideas tried to grapple and also people in the world of politics on both the left and the right tried to grapple with a very uncertain world. It was very disorienting for the Republicans because, although it was seen by them as their moment of triumph, they felt that especially the presidency of Ronald Regan had helped usher in the end of the Cold War, they now had to deal with a world in which anti-communism wasn't a primary motivation. There had been a lot of divides previously in the Republican party, but during the Cold War, all those sort of evaporated, especially in the last couple decades of the Cold War, because all of the Republicans were able to rally around the idea that the Soviet Union had to be combated. And so once communism was gone, anti-communism was gone. What happens is the Republicans really split into a number of different groups. There is the traditional, pragmatic realists; George H. W. Bush, the president; Brent Scowcroft, his National Security Advisor; James Baker, his Secretary of State. These are people who believed in American leadership, through international institutions such as the United Nations, which was important to George H. W. Bush, he had been Ambassador to the United Nations in the 1970s and was very fond of the organization, hoped to be able to make it work after the Cold War was over. And that group, you know, focused on sort of core American national security interests, great powers, not looking for a new mission for the United States. You had Isolationists, that was a strain that had been in the Republican Party prior to the Cold War; it was back again after the Cold War was over. Pat Buchanan ran against George H. W. Bush in 1992 for the Republican nomination and got almost 40 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, against the sitting president, it was incredible, and running on slogan, "Come Home America," that George McGovern had used 20 years earlier, on the Democratic side to much derision by the Republicans. And in fact, when we spoke to Pat Buchanan for the book, he said that George McGovern had sent him a note saying, "I'm glad to see you could make use of my slogan." And Pat Buchanan said, "Well, you know, we couldn't come home in 1972, but we have to come home now in 1992." This notion that the United States had spent so much money, you know, protecting other countries in Europe, Japan and so on. And that with the Cold War over, the United States should come home and focus on its domestic economy and domestic issues. So that was a very strong strain. You have emerging, then, what we in call in the book, the Contract Republicans. The Republicans who sweep into Congress in 1994 on the contract with America. Very little foreign policy there. Sort of share a lot in common with the Isolationists. There are a lot of Republicans coming in who proudly declare that they have never owned a passport, that they didn't travel, you know, why would you need to go anywhere else. To the extent that they did look at foreign policy, they focused on missile defense, the rise of China and bashing the United Nations. And it was also a lot of Clinton bashing. And then there was this fourth group that was very small in the 1990s, the neo-conservatives, who really with the end of the Cold War a lot of the neo-conservatives said, "Well, we don't need to have the old exceptional mission for the United States. We won the Cold War. We can just become what Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick called, you know, a normal country in a normal time, that we could just-- the United States could just become normal again. There were a few neo-conservatives who kept alive the dream of a U.S. mission to help build and promote democracy in other parts of the world. But, in the 1990s, they were very marginal to the Republican Party and, in fact, many of their writings were geared toward trying to make the Republican Party more interested in the ideas that they were promulgating.

Recorded on: 07/08/2008