How 9/11 Provoked the U.S. to Hasten its Own Decline

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The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building in New York, September 11, 2001. (Photo: Marty Lederhandler / AP)

During his first year in office, President George W. Bush was confronted by the key strategic challenge facing the United States in the new century, in an incident that began with the diversion of a U.S. aircraft — by Chinese fighter planes, which forced a U.S. Navy spy plane to land on the island of Hainan after a collision that downed a Chinese jets, killing its pilot. What followed was a tense 11-day standoff between Washington and Beijing, serving an early warning that China’s emergence as an economic superpower would inevitably alter the geopolitical balance of power in Asia, and globally.

But then came 9/11 — a mass-casualty terrorist provocation on an unprecedented scale — and the Bush Administration convinced itself, and much of America, that the world had changed. The new president had found his “calling” in a campaign to “rid the world of evil doers”, declaring a “war on terrorism” that would become the leitmotif and singular obsession of U.S. foreign policy for the remainder of his presidency — a presidency that despite massive, kinetic displays of military force, left the U.S. strategically weaker at its close than when Bush entered the Oval Office. 

“We’d always treated terrorist attacks before primarily as a law enforcement problem… going after and finding the guilty party, bring them to trial and put them in the slammer,” Vice President Dick Cheney told TIME in an interview published in this week’s edition. “After 9/11, you couldn’t look on those as just law enforcement problems anymore. It was clearly an act of war. And that’s a significant shift. You’re going to use all of the means available…”

But while the scale and brutality of the attacks might have been akin to an act of war, 9/11 was the work of a tiny network of transnational extremists, founded on the remnants of the Arab volunteers who’d fought in the U.S.-backed Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union.

Like any other terrorist attack, it was a particularly horrifying act of “armed propaganda”, staged to grab global media attention in order to:
* hugely exaggerate the significance of al-Qaeda and its leader, painting them as far more powerful than their real numbers suggest;
* highlight their demands;
* instill fear in Western civilian populations to create pressure for a retreat from Muslim countries; and
* rally support among the population whose grievances they championed and on whose behalf they claimed to act.

If Timothy McVeigh had been part of a network of 1,000 militant right-wing activists willing to die for their cause, would Vice President Cheney have called the Oklahoma City bombing an “act of war” — civil war, presumably? Probably not. That’s not to diminish the scale of the security threat posed by terrorists, but visualizing it as a “war” and therefore, as Cheney says, opting to use “all the means available” — including conventional warfare — opened the way to massive strategic blunders. Instead of cowing America’s challengers, the massive U.S. show of force in Afghanistan and Iraq ultimately demonstrated the limits of that power.

While U.S. political leaders and pundits insisted that the world now faced a “generational conflict with radical Islam”, most of the international community would not buy the idea that they had to choose between Bush and Bin Laden. As Philip Stephens wrote in the Financial Times (subscription) last weekend, “Osama bin Laden grabbed a decade’s worth of headlines, but the future was being written in Beijing, Delhi, Rio and beyond.”

Making the “war on terror” the centerpiece of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy allowed a marginal cluster of extremists, whose presence in America’s nightmares was infinitely greater than its presence on the Arab street, to effectively set the agenda of the most powerful nation on earth. Al-Qaeda was a security menace in the West and the Muslim world (although effective police and intelligence cooperation since 9/11 has substantially diminished that threat), but as a strategic actor, it was insignificant. It controlled no national territory, nor did it have the leverage to alter the prevailing balances of power.

The 9/11 attacks failed miserably to ignite the rebellion against U.S.-allied regimes in the Muslim world that Bin Laden had hoped would be triggered by terror strikes that demonstrated American vulnerability. The only place where such a rebellion, arguably, did occur was Pakistan, some seven years later, although that was triggered not by al-Qaeda’s 9/11 call to arms, but by local anger at the U.S. war in next-door Afghanistan. Indeed, the U.S. response to 9/11 — Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc. — actually left it in a weaker political position in the Arab world than it had been in 2001.

Bin Laden’s killing last spring in the U.S. raid on Abottabad was greeted with a collective shrug throughout the Arab world, which by then was getting on with overthrowing the very U.S.-aligned tyrants against which Bin Laden railed, although they showed no greater interest in al-Qaeda and its perspectives when having overthrown regimes who’d cooperated with the U.S. “war on terror” than they had done before 9/11.

These, days news that the U.S. has killed the latest Al-Qaeda number 2 or number 3 is greeted, even on these shores, with a collective shrug. Good job. Sure, there’ll be a new number 2 or number 3, hopefully they’ll be taken out, too. But neither the world nor America is waiting for that to happen before we can breathe again.

Then presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry told the New York Times in October 2004, “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.” Like organized crime, he argued, terrorism can’t be entirely eliminated, “but we’re going to reduce it… to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”

He was pilloried by the Bush Administration, of course, but in retrospect, he was stating what should have been obvious. Instead, as former Clinton Administration trade official David J. Rothkopf recently noted, “We spoke of 9/11 as though it were somehow equivalent to Pearl Harbor, the beginning of a global war against enemies bent on, and at least theoretically capable of, destroying the American way of life (unlike al Qaeda, a ragtag band of extremists with limited punch). We spoke of cultural wars and a divided world. We reorganized our entire security establishment to go after a few thousand bad guys. We went mad.”

As a matter of national security strategy, the U.S. set out to demonstrate its global primacy to all challengers, and remake the Middle East in its own image via the shock-and-awe effect of deploying its overwhelming military power, regardless of the niceties of international law and consensus. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” a senior advisor to President Bush told the New York Times in 2004. “We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Indeed. And the picture is not pretty, notwithstanding the heroic courage of tens of thousand of men and women in uniform sent into combat over the past decade. Afghanistan has become the longest war in U.S. history, and it shows little sign of ending on a positive note any time soon. The invasion of Iraq, couched as a response to 9/11 despite no connection, may finally be brought to an end in December, with an ambiguous outcome — Iraq is democratic, but as a result, its government remains closer to Tehran than to Washington. The two wars have cost the lives of more than twice as many Americans as were killed on 9/11, and the limbs and mental peace of many thousands more. And economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates they will cost America upward of $3 trillion (and counting) — ironically, a figure similar to the amount the Bush Administration was cutting from U.S. tax revenues. Not surprising, perhaps, that the national debt was $5.73 billion when President Bush took office, and stood at $10.7 billion when he left the White House.

By shunning international consensus, the Bush Administration gambled on a unilateral show of force that would shock and awe the world back into line. And it lost the gamble. Iraq and Afghanistan that its overwhelming advantage in military force is not enough to bend distant countries to its will. The “war on terror” era — and perhaps, even more importantly, the shift in global economic power toward non-Western nations — has seen a precipitous decline in Washington’s ability to persuade even longstanding allies in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America to follow its lead.

The decade since 9/11 saw a distortion of U.S. strategic priorities and an imperial overreach that, together with the onset of what looks set to be a long-term recession, finally drew the “American Century” to a close.

A memorable pro-Republican ad aired during last year’s Congressional elections depicts a class of Chinese students being told, in 2030, that America had gone the same way as the Roman Empire because it had spent billions on economic stimulus, made massive changes to its health care system and its government had taken over private industries, leaving it heavily indebted and ultimately subordinate to China.

China’s stimulus spending was far larger than America’s, of course, while the state runs the health system and also owns many private industries, making the premise of the ad absurd. But it’s quite possible to imagine a Chinese history class two decades from now being taught that U.S. imperial decline first became evident in the years following 9/11, when a dramatic made-for-TV act of violent propaganda by an organization comprising a few hundred desperate men had propelled the erstwhile hyper-power onto a path of strategic self-destruction. Indeed, as historian (and sometime Bush White House guest) Timothy Garton-Ash noted in the Guardian,
it’s remarkable that none of the many conspiracy theories spawned by 9/11 have suggested that Bin Laden was a Chinese agent, because Beijing has been the greatest beneficiary of America’s “war on terror”.