It has been nearly 20 years since that fateful day we now call simply 9/11. We are still living with its consequences.
This horrific al Qaeda terrorist attack came at the apex of America’s post-Cold War preeminence, a time when the nation’s military and economic power and its ideals and popular culture appeared to hold sway worldwide.
After a sensible and generally effective initial response to the disaster, a hubristic George W. Bush administration, in a classic example of overreach, veered off course. Instead of focusing on locating terrorist cells and heading off plots, it sought to combat terrorism by deploying America’s vast military power preemptively and by extending democracy.
A successful quick strike into Afghanistan in November 2001 to wipe out al Qaeda and remove from power its Taliban hosts evolved into an ill-advised exercise in nation-building and a still ongoing struggle with the Taliban that is now America’s longest war.
In 2003, the administration invaded Iraq to flex its muscles in the Middle East, settle old scores, eliminate weapons of mass destruction (that turned out not to exist), unseat the tyrannical dictator Saddam Hussein, and spread democracy. As with Afghanistan, military and political frustration followed striking early success. U.S. forces limped home eight years later.
The consequences of 9/11 and these so-called “Forever Wars” remain with us.
The terrorist attacks aroused anxiety among Americans about their security as at no time since the height of the Cold War. They spurred anti-Islamist sentiment. The ease with which the terrorists had slipped in and out of the U.S. in preparing for the 9/11 attacks provoked opposition to immigration and calls for tightening border control.
The Bush administration’s “with us or against us” mentality and high-handed treatment of allies like France and Germany in the run-up to war with Iraq severely damaged America’s European alliance and anticipated the uber nationalism of Donald Trump.
These wars knocked the United States from the lofty international perch it had enjoyed throughout the 1990s. More than 7,000 Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost has been estimated in the trillions of dollars. The Bush administration also recklessly cut taxes, spiking the deficit, forcing heavy borrowing, especially from emerging economic rival China, and helping to spark the Great Recession of 2007. An economy once held up as a model for other nations lost its luster.
Wars intended to showcase U.S. military power instead exposed its limits. The American people understandably wearied of prolonged, costly and inconclusive overseas adventures, making them easy prey for Trump’s cries of “America First.”
The abuse of prisoners at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, use of torture to extract information, and imprisonment of alleged enemy fighters without due process at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, undercut America’s claims to moral superiority.
This nation’s slippage after 9/11 was underscored by China’s surge as a rising global economic competitor and a regional military power.
Naively hoping to stabilize and democratize Iraq and even the entire Middle East, Bush and his advisers achieved quite the opposite. The removal of Saddam Hussein plunged Iraq into near anarchy; civil war erupted between Sunnis and Shiites. Al Qaeda in Iraq emerged out of the chaos and morphed into ISIS which for a time controlled swaths of the Middle East. The only real winner was Iran, which no longer faced a Sunni rival in Iraq and even formed ties with the Shiite government created there by U.S. occupiers. The Sunni-Shite rivalry soon fanned out across the region with Saudi Arabia and Iran waging proxy wars in Yemen and elsewhere. By foolishly taking sides in this conflict, the Trump administration has exacerbated the problem. The Middle East wars have created millions of refugees who flooded into Europe and provoked nationalistic responses and demands for closing borders.
The legacies of 9/11 thus include a much more volatile and dangerous world and a weakened United States with frayed alliances and a populace wary of foreign intervention. Sadly, these results are as much about what we have done to ourselves as about what others have done to us.
George C. Herring is the author of The American Century and Beyond: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1893, a volume in Oxford University Press’s History of the United States Series.