WHEN, IN 1998, President Bill Clinton fired cruise missiles at terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Sudan, a reporter asked the secretary of defence if there wasn’t a “striking resemblance” to the plot of “Wag the Dog”, a film in which a White House consultant confects a faraway war to distract from a presidential sex scandal. Popular culture and sex scandals loomed large in American society during the 1990s; foreign affairs did not. Abroad was where the impediments to Ross and Rachel’s predestined coupledom came from in “Friends”.
Those who still paid attention to America’s role in the world lacked a definition for it. Having become the world’s only superpower, America had very little idea how to use that power—if, indeed, it should use it that much at all.
September 11th 2001 brought this era of distraction and aimlessness to an end. The horror of that day unified the country, all but erasing memories of President George W. Bush’s divisive victory over Al Gore the year before. It also created, for Americans, the prospect of global solidarity. “The world has changed in a way that we are all vulnerable,” said Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate foreign-relations committee, the following day.
America and the world
The real lessons from 9/11
America risks swinging from hubris to muddle
Sep 11th 2021
TWENTY YEARS ago America set out to reshape the world order after the attacks of September 11th. Today it is easy to conclude that its foreign policy has been abandoned on a runway at Kabul airport. President Joe Biden says the exit from Afghanistan was about “ending an era” of distant wars, but it has left America’s allies distraught and its enemies gleeful. Most Americans are tired of it all: roughly two-thirds say the war wasn’t worth it. Yet the national mood of fatigue and apathy is a poor guide to America’s future role in the world. Its capabilities remain formidable and its strategy can be retooled for the 21st century, provided the right lessons are drawn from the post-9/11 era.
The murder of 3,000 people on American soil provoked a reaction that highlighted America’s “unipolar moment”. For a while, it appeared to have uncontested power. President George W. Bush declared that the world was either with America or against it. NATO said the assault on the twin towers was an attack on all its members. Vladimir Putin pledged Russian military co-operation; Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, called this the real end of the cold war. The ease with which American-led forces routed the Taliban seemed to augur a new kind of light-touch warfare: 63 days after September 11th, Kabul fell. There have been enduring achievements since then. Counter-terrorism efforts have improved: Osama bin Laden is dead and no remotely comparable attack on America has succeeded. Lower Manhattan has been rebuilt in style.
But for the most part the legacy of the response to September 11th has been a bitter one. The mission to crush al-Qaeda morphed into a desire for regime change and nation-building that delivered unconvincing results in Afghanistan and Iraq, at a huge human and fiscal cost. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were a mirage. America broke its taboo on torture and lost the moral high ground. The initial, illusory, sense of clarity about when it should intervene militarily faded into indecision, for example over Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013. At home the spirit of unity quickly evaporated and America’s toxic divisions mocked its claim to have a superior form of government. The mire in the Middle East has been a distraction from the real story of the early 21st century, the rise of China.