What happened to America?

By Matthew Knott

Am American flag flies near the base of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York, September 11, 2001.Credit:Reuters

When the planes hit the towers they sliced through more than steel. The September 11 attacks shattered the myth of American innocence and invulnerability. Since the end of the Cold War over a decade earlier, America had basked in its status as the world’s sole and unquestioned superpower.

Looking back two decades later, it seems a time of remarkably heady optimism. Life in America wasn’t perfect, of course. But there was widespread faith that the internet, free trade and a rising China would create a more prosperous and interconnected world.

A “glorious holiday from history” is how William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former policy adviser to Bill Clinton, describes the years leading up to September 11. “There was the sense that the United States had defeated every threat to liberal democracy the 20th century had posed,” Galston says. “We had defeated fascism; we had defeated communism. The American psyche was located somewhere between confidence and triumphalism.”

A firefighter walking away from Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers. Credit:Anthony Correia/Getty Images

Now almost 3000 people were dead in the biggest foreign terrorist attack in American history. Another attack seemed possible at any moment. The nation faced a defining new threat: radical Islamist terrorism. The holiday from history was over. “We realised there were still enemies out there who hated us and wanted to harm us in any way possible,” Galston says.

It was a frightening realisation but an energising one too. Suddenly American power was imbued with a new sense of purpose. From the start, President George W. Bush framed the attacks in the most expansive way possible. “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world,” Bush said on September 11. “And no one will keep that light from shining.”

America, united

It was what Americans wanted to hear from their leader. Bush, the son of the nation’s 41st president, had a folksy charm but was no one’s idea of a policy wonk. His Democratic opponent Al Gore won more votes in the previous year’s election, but Bush carried the Electoral College with help from some poorly perforated ballots in Florida. Crisis transformed Bush into a unifying and wildly popular figure. His approval ratings soared from 52 per cent to 88 per cent following the attacks and stayed at stratospheric levels for several months. Republicans and Democrats put aside their differences to rally around the flag.

There was no time for debate or dissent. On September 24 public intellectual Susan Sontag caused a scandal by arguing in the New Yorker that the attacks should prompt America to reflect on its Middle East policies. “Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilisation’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” she asked. “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.” Sontag was denounced as an “America-hater,” a “moral idiot” and a “traitor” for committing such heresy to print.

President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld visit the Pentagon in Washington DC to view the damage the day after the September 11, 2001 attacks.Credit:Getty

The drums of war were beating, and the hawks were flying high. Those calling for restraint were sidelined. A week after September 11, Bush signed into law a joint resolution authorising the use of force against those responsible for the attacks. Only one member of Congress – Democratic House member Barbara Lee – voted against the resolution on the grounds it was a blank cheque giving Bush virtually unlimited war powers.

Two days later, Bush used a speech to Congress to lay out the principles for what he called the “war on terror”. It was a war that extended well beyond any specific nation or organisation; this was a civilisational struggle between good and evil.

“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he said. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

Bush announced that the US would seek to strike enemy nations and terrorist groups before they had a chance to attack America and would do so alone if necessary. And more than that, his administration would seek to spread democracy and freedom around the world.

The US was about to embark on what Galston calls an “enormous series of blunders”. In his recently published book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilised America and Produced Trump, journalist Spencer Ackerman describes America’s post-September 11 foreign policymaking as the “geopolitical equivalent of a psychotic episode”.

Losing focus

Things started well. Within a month of the attacks, the US launched a bombing campaign against the Taliban, the Islamist Afghan regime that had refused to give up al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It was an uncontroversial war with a noble aim. Some 42 countries – including every member of NATO and Australia – joined the effort. The Taliban were quickly routed and al-Qaeda shattered.

But before long the original point of the war – to hunt down those responsible for the attacks – was lost. In December 2001, Afghan forces tracked bin Laden to the Tora Bora cave complex and launched a two-week battle. Despite persuasive intelligence pointing to bin Laden’s presence in the caves, the Bush administration turned down US military leaders’ requests to lead the assault. Bin Laden escaped to Pakistan, where he would live for almost another decade.

Delay meant Osama bin Laden had time to escape his Tora Bora hide-out before the Mujahideen arrived. Credit:AP

What could have been a tightly focused counter-terrorism operation morphed into a nation-building mission. In April 2002 Bush compared the effort to create a democratic Afghanistan to the Marshall Plan that revived Western Europe after World War II.

“We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations,” he said in a speech at the White House. “Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.”

Neither democracy nor capitalism, it turned out, would flourish in Afghanistan like they did in postwar Western Europe.

“Looking back I am struck by how much of the American reaction to September 11 was driven by something other than an attempt to make the United States secure,” says Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Why did the US feel the need to try to do so much more than go after al-Qaeda and end up distracting itself?”

Soon the US was distracted from its own distractions. Before the first anniversary of September 11, Afghanistan was already fading into the background. The prospect of a war against Iraq was assuming an inevitability that looks baffling in retrospect. Unlike Afghanistan, this war was controversial. Key US allies such as Germany and France wanted no part in it.

Saddam Hussein was a secular tyrant without close links to al-Qaeda. He also, it turned out, did not possess the weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration had warned of. Toppling Hussein’s regime took only a few weeks, but the US had given little thought to what came next.

The war unleashed a torrent of internecine ethnic and religious tensions topped off with anger at the foreign occupation. Almost 4500 American troops would die in Iraq – significantly more individuals than perished on September 11. America was now sucked into two Vietnam-style quagmires with no prospect of escape.

America seemed on a mission to shred the global sympathy it had attracted after the attacks. Civil liberties were thrown overboard in the name of national security. The Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, opened after 9/11, was used to evade the US justice system and international human rights law. Waterboarding, widely regarded as a form of torture, was used to extract at times dubious confessions from inmates held under indefinite detention. In 2003 shocking photos emerged of US soldiers and CIA agents committing torture and abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. One image showed officer Lynndie England walking a naked detainee on a leash as if he was a dog.

The horrors of Abu Ghraib have not been forgotten in Iraq.Credit:The Washington Post

This was not the behaviour of a “shining city on a hill”, as Ronald Reagan famously called America, but a country that had lost its moral compass.

Meanwhile, as America tried to nation-build in Iraq and Afghanistan, problems were festering at home. Globalisation had made consumer goods cheaper but at a cost: once thriving manufacturing towns in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio were hollowed out. Inequality grew between the winners and the losers of the new knowledge economy. The sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008 ballooned into a “great recession” that pushed unemployment into double digits.

Looking for an ending

When Congress voted to authorise the Iraq war Hillary Clinton, then a senator for New York, voted for it. So did Delaware senator Joe Biden. On the day of the vote Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator, was in Chicago at an antiwar rally denouncing the rush to invade Iraq. Obama’s early and consistent opposition to the war paid off when he ran for president against Clinton and Biden. By now the war was regarded by most Democrats as a disaster. “I don’t think Barack Obama defeats Hillary Clinton in 2008 were it not for his opposition to the Iraq War,” Wertheim says.

The election of the first Black president in American history restored some of the global goodwill that the US had squandered in the years after September 11. Obama vowed to end the war in Iraq and he followed through in 2011. In the same year he achieved what Bush could not: he approved the strike that killed Osama bin Laden, a welcome if long-delayed punishment for the architect of the attacks.

Obama tried to shift America into a post-9/11 mindset, one in which it moved away from Bush’s vision of a sweeping war on terror. “For over the last decade, our nation has spent over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home,” Obama said in a 2013 speech. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organisations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end.” His administration announced a “pivot to Asia”, signalling a shift away from the focus on the Middle East.

But the Middle East had other ideas. The region was like a whirlpool that kept sucking Obama in despite his efforts to back away. Early in his presidency, Obama’s top generals convinced him to send an extra 60,000 troops into Afghanistan, deepening America’s involvement in a war that had long ago lost a clear rationale.

In 2014 US troops invaded Iraq again, just three years after Obama pulled them out. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, later simply IS), a group which emerged from the splintering of al-Qaeda, had become a potent and bloodthirsty terrorist threat. At its peak, it controlled an estimated 40 per cent of Iraq and a third of Syria – an area roughly the size of Britain.

Terror and panic

Lone wolf attackers inspired by IS propaganda launched attacks across the world. In June 2016 Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old who had sworn allegiance to the group, walked into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and shot dead 49 people. It was the biggest terror attack in the US since September 11.

The rise of IS fed a resurgent panic about Muslim immigration, despite the fact the vast majority of American Muslims were well integrated into society. In December 2015, Donald Trump, a reality TV billionaire turned Republican presidential candidate, called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. According to most pundits, such a xenophobic and unworkable policy proposal exemplified why Trump would never get near the Republican nomination, let alone the White House. It turned out many Republican voters were delighted at Trump’s refusal to bow to so-called “political correctness”.

The Trump presidential campaign of 2016, underestimated in Washington, struck a chord. Credit:Craig Ruttle

American conservatism had transformed since 2001. Bush carefully avoided demonising Muslims while embarking on ambitious military adventures in the Middle East. Trump did the opposite, stigmatising Muslims while vowing to end America’s involvement in “stupid” overseas wars.

In a 2016 campaign speech explaining why he thought America’s post-Cold War foreign policy had been a “total disaster”, Trump said: “It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a Western democracy. We’re getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.”

Trump won the Republican nomination and the presidency.

It seemed unthinkable, until you began to think it through. “The jingoistic nationalism of the immediate post-9/11 era morphed into a cocktail of fear and xenophobia that eventually produced a president, Donald Trump, who paid lip service to ending wars abroad and repurposed the rhetoric of the war on terror to attack a shifting cast of enemies at home,” Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs.

By the end of Trump’s first term, the threat of Islamist terrorism no longer dominated America’s national psyche. The issue didn’t feature in the presidential election campaign. Writing in The Atlantic last May, Rhodes declared: “The 9/11 era is over.”

This was partly a success story: a successful US-led bombing campaign had stripped IS of almost all its territory. The terrorist group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was dead after a US raid. But it was also because other, even bigger threats had emerged.

According to scientists, the disastrous impact of climate change is already visible in extreme weather events like the “heat dome” that fried usually mild north-western states such as Oregon earlier this year.

The coronavirus has claimed over 600,000 American lives – 200 times as many as died on September 11. But the pandemic did not create even a fleeting sense of national unity. The sense of tribalism only hardened. Democrats largely embraced mask-wearing and rushed to get vaccinated; many Republicans rejected both as an affront to personal freedom.

The new rival

In Washington there is an emerging consensus that America’s geopolitical battle with Communist China has replaced the war on terror as the defining struggle of our age. With China poised to become the world’s biggest economy and flexing its military muscles, no one considers America the world’s sole superpower any more.

Instead of wanting to spread democracy around the globe, many Americans fear for their own. After losing to Joe Biden, Trump’s refusal to accept defeat and his lies about election fraud inspired his supporters to storm the US Capitol. According to America’s intelligence agencies, it is no longer Islamists but violent white supremacists – like those who participated in the January 6 insurrection – who pose the biggest terror threat.

Law enforcement officials now consider far-right extremism a greater terror threat than Islamic State.

Americans have war fatigue: they’re tired of spending billions of dollars on overseas conflicts and watching American soldiers die in the desert. Reflecting the mood, both Trump and Biden vowed to end the war in Afghanistan during last year’s election. Trump made a deal with the Taliban to be out by May this year; Biden vowed to have all troops out by September 11. Before US troops had even departed, the Afghan government and military had collapsed. The Taliban were back in power.

“The 9/11 era began in Afghanistan, and now it has ended there in humiliating defeat,” the Brookings Institution’s Galston says. He says it is well past time to “close the book on the 9/11 era”.

Biden agrees. Speaking after the final US military plane left Kabul, Biden said he would focus on the threats of today rather than those of 20 years ago. “The world is changing,” he said. “We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia. We’re confronted with cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation.”

The lofty rhetoric of the Bush era is gone, replaced by hard-headed realism. All American military endeavours, Biden said, must be based on two principles: “First, we must set missions with clear, achievable goals – not ones we’ll never reach. And second, we must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.”

Twenty years after the towers collapsed, America is an angrier, more divided, less triumphal nation. It’s more aware of the limits of its power. The US is no longer looking to reshape the world in its image. More than anything, it wants to be left alone.

A baby is lifted across a wall at Kabul Airport in Afghanistan by US soldiers. Credit:Omar Haidari

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