Chapter 17: Foreign and National Security Policies


On January 31, 2001, the US Commission on National Security/21st Century released its report warning that foreign terrorists would soon attack and kill many people in the United States.This account and the interviews appear in Stephen Hess and Marvin Kalb, eds., The Media and the War on Terrorism (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), 113–20. The commission was the brainchild of President Bill Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, mandated by Congress, and chaired by two former senators, Warren Rudman (R-NH), and Gary Hart (D-CO). It spent $10 million and worked for three and a half years. To ensure widespread coverage of the report, its chairmen hired a public relations firm, visited newspapers’ news bureaus in New York and Washington, DC, briefed key members of Congress, and unveiled it at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

The report was not entirely ignored but never received the media attention it warranted. The wire services reported it, as did the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and CNN. USA Today published a short piece on the report. But there were few stories in the rest of the news media when the commission reported or later. Nothing about it was reported in the New York Times. Most Americans were unaware of the report and of the deadly danger it warned of.

Interviewed a year later, journalists regretted the limited coverage. They attributed it to various factors. One was timing: the press covers only a few major stories at any time and the cut in interest rates and the electricity crisis in California were deemed more newsworthy because of their immediate effects on people. The apparent lack of interest from public officials was another explanation. The news media would have covered the report far more if President Clinton, who had just left office, had promoted it or if his recently inaugurated successor George W. Bush had held a news conference about it or invited the two senators to the White House or had highlighted terrorism in a speech. President Bush did none of these things. Nor did Congress hold a hearing on the report or make terrorism a priority. The report also lacked immediacy: it was a prediction about an event that might happen.

The media failed to connect the report to past events: terrorists had previously staged several attacks against the United States, including destroying two US embassies and damaging the World Trade Center. “In the three months leading up to 9/11, the phrase Al Qaeda was never mentioned on any of the three evening news broadcasts—not once.”Tom Fenton, Bad News (New York: Regan Books, 2005), 4.

This case shows that not reporting or insufficiently reporting stories can be significant. The news media put no pressure on President George W. Bush to take action to try to forestall terrorist attacks. They denied people information and understanding about the terrorist threat and limited their ability to hold the administration accountable for a policy failure when the attacks occurred. After the attacks, they arguably gave excessive and positive coverage to the Bush administration’s responses to terrorists and terrorism.

Enduring Image

The Twin Towers

On 9/11 Al Qaeda terrorists armed with simple box cutters took over four passenger planes, transforming them into lethal weapons. They flew two of the jets into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing 2,823 people from around the world and injuring many others. They flew the third jet into the Pentagon, causing more casualties and serious damage to the building. Passengers prevented the terrorists from flying the fourth plane to Washington, DC, and the plane crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside. Shown throughout the world, the horrifying shots of the planes flying into the Twin Towers and of the towers’ destroyed remnants are enduring images of a spectacular attack on the symbols of US economic might. They graphically exposed the ability of terrorists from abroad to attack on US soil. They shocked Americans into realizing their country’s vulnerability, with its six thousand miles of land borders and three hundred ports of entry.

Clear Shot of Plane Hitting Tower Two

To a nation accustomed to Hollywood disaster blockbusters, the 9/11 attack was harsh reality.See Anthony Lane, “This Is Not a Movie,” New Yorker, September 24, 2001, 79. Yet the phrases used by television commentators had an eerie familiarity: they recalled Hollywood’s fictional movie The Siege, a 1998 thriller about terrorists attacking targets in New York City.

President Bush and other US government and military leaders responded to the attacks depicted in the devastating images and words of the media. Their themes were American national identity, strength, and power. Their purpose was to unite the American public and mobilize support for a “war on terrorism” to be waged abroad and at home. In their stories, journalists repeated and thereby reinforced these themes and supported the purposes.John Hutcheson, David Domke, Andre Billeaudeaux, and Philip Garland, “U.S. National Identity, Political Elites, and a Patriotic Press Following 9/11,” Political Communication 21, no. 1 (January–March 2004): 27–50.

The United States is the global superpower and world leader. It operates in a world beset by famine, poverty, disease, and catastrophes both natural (tsunamis, earthquakes) and man-made (climate change, pollution of the seas and skies, and release of radioactive materials from nuclear plants). It is a world of genocide, regional and ethnic strife, and refugees. Terrorism, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (“loose nukes”), the Arab-Israeli conflict, and instability and challenges to autocratic rulers in the Middle East are only the most obvious of the foreign policy issues that affect the United States. Others are economic upheavals, the rise of China to world economic and political power, relations with Russia, AIDS in Africa, dependence on oil from undemocratic states, the importation of illegal drugs, and the annual US trade deficit of around $800 billion.

At the same time, the United States is extraordinarily active, often militarily, in international affairs. Since 1989, it has intervened in Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. On the justifications for war since 1990, see Nicholas Kerton-Johnson, Justifying America’s Wars: The Conduct and Practice of US Military Intervention (New York: Routledge, 2010). On the other hand, it stood aside as hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the Rwandan genocide. President Clinton later apologized for doing nothing in Rwanda.

America’s military expenditures are enormous. The annual defense budget is around $711 billion plus more billions for Homeland Security. That’s about ten times greater than any other nation. The United States has around eighty major weapons programs under development with a collective price tag of $1.3 trillion. It has formal or informal agreements to defend thirty-seven countries. It has more than 700 military installations abroad in approximately 130 countries, including South Korea, Germany, and dictatorships such as Uzbekistan. Excluding Iraq and Afghanistan, some 200,000 American military personnel plus a roughly equal number of dependents and civilians are stationed abroad. The United States is the world’s leading supplier of weapons to the rest of the world.


US Department of Defense Budget

View the defense budget at

According to an investigation by the Washington Post, the government responding to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has created a top-secret America:

  • “1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.”
  • “An estimated 854,000 people…hold top-secret security clearances.”
  • “Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work.…For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands…track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.”Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, “Top Secret America,” Washington Post, July 19, 2010, 1ff.

This chapter explains why the United States has become so involved in the world, how the government is organized to make foreign and national security policies, and the most important policies that result.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

American Government and Politics in the Information Age Copyright © 2016 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book