The wreckage of the Twin Towers on 11th September 2001 © Steve McCurry, Magnum

The legacy of 9/11

After 20 years of foreign policy failures following the attacks on the World Trade Center, America is finally rethinking its place in the world
July 14, 2021

Twenty years after terrorists infiltrated the world’s sole superpower, turned passenger aircraft into guided missiles and reduced the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon to rubble, has the truism of that moment—that 9/11 “changed everything”—proven to be false?

For all the solemn odes to the day’s significance that will be heard on its looming 20th anniversary, the truth remains: September 11 did not, as it turned out, inaugurate a new age of massive terrorist attacks in the United States. Even the initially unimaginable scale of the attacks themselves has slowly come to look less shocking. The 2,977 souls lost now rank alongside the successive tolls of Hurricane Katrina and the coronavirus pandemic. The latter has claimed well over half a million American lives already. According to official statistics, on 38 individual days of the pandemic more Americans died from Covid-19 than perished on 9/11. 

Nor was September 11, lest we forget, what sent the US military into the Middle East. A full decade earlier, in the wake of its first war against Iraq to liberate Kuwait, the United States had already begun to station tens of thousands of troops in the region, a grievance cited by Osama bin Laden when he declared war on America in 1996. America’s pursuit of military dominance—dividing the region into friends and enemies—would have happened regardless of 9/11, albeit to less deadly effect.

But 9/11 has turned out to matter, profoundly, in the country where the horrific attack occurred. Expect an unnerving nostalgia to accompany the anniversary in a now-divided country: to some, the memory of a nation roused to collective action in the wake of 9/11 may offer a measure of comfort. And Americans were not wrong to experience that day as a seminal event, which would define who they were as a nation. “In a single instant,” President George W Bush declared in the months following the attack, “we realised that this will be a decisive decade in the history of liberty, that we’ve been called to a unique role in human events.” In this regard, in shaping America’s sense of itself, 9/11 might well have “changed everything” as momentously as was assumed—just not in the direction intended.

Those who had seemed best positioned to bend history to their will—America’s ruling elites—seized on the tragedy as an incomparable opportunity to demonstrate that the United States was “indispensable” to human affairs. America had been targeted, they argued, because of the power of its example. And it would respond by delivering the example of its power, regaining the initiative and driving world history forward. 

Yet spectacular ambitions produced interminable conflict. Shock and awe yielded to endless war. The very bid for indispensability left Americans doubting both their power in the world and their status as an example to it. Now a new president, Joe Biden, has ordered a full withdrawal of US soldiers from Afghanistan by 11th September, a date chosen not because any mission will have been accomplished, but because two decades seems like long enough. Twenty years on, America will therefore be reversing one of its errors and entering a new era. A rethink that should have taken place a generation ago can finally begin. September 11 was the moment that postponed everything, but it is unlikely to serve that function much longer.

Power in search of purpose

In 1941, in the face of Nazi and Japanese conquests and British decline, the United States appointed itself responsible for ordering the world by force of arms. No one could doubt that mid-century America was, in a word, indispensable to the outcomes that followed, crushing the Axis powers and orchestrating the containment of the Soviet Union. Yet once the Soviet empire dissolved, a turn inwards beckoned. President George HW Bush promised a “peace dividend.” When he nonetheless prosecuted the Persian Gulf War in 1991, he was rewarded in the subsequent presidential election with a loss to Bill Clinton, a Vietnam draft-evader whose “experience in world affairs,” as one report put it, was “limited to breakfast at the International House of Pancakes.” For several years, the economy dominated the agenda. Military spending fell. Downed helicopters in Mogadishu prompted America to withdraw from Somalia; ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia produced dithering; genocide in Rwanda elicited no action at all.

In this context, a troubled Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, proclaimed America to be the world’s “indispensable nation.” She did so on The Today Show in 1998 while explaining why her government, regretting its earlier caution, was gearing up to bomb Iraq. “If we have to use force,” she said, “it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.” 

Albright had to deploy the term “indispensable nation” because the purpose of American power was no longer self-evident. True, the United States bestrode the world as she spoke. After the collapse of Soviet power—against which America had previously defined its efforts—officials wished to expand, not contract, US alliances, seeking to unite the world under US supervision. But to what end, against whom?

“From the outset, Bush framed the attack as tragic proof of the centrality of the United States to world affairs”

The “rogue states” touted by officials, among them Iraq and Libya, posed limited threats to their own regions, let alone the global order or the US homeland. Nor did economic globalisation require many gunboats to defend it now international communism was dead. At best, the United States might be doing the world a good turn by policing it. At worst, armed dominance was liable to lapse into a pointless and costly imperialism. In neither view was it necessary. There were also questions about how sustainable such an approach would be. Already by the start of this century, America accounted for a far lower share of global GDP than it had at the end of the Second World War. The Chinese growth miracle that would soon erase centuries of western pre-eminence was already underway.

Albright’s arguments were not met with acclaim. Her appearance on The Today Show followed a CNN town hall on Iraq in which she encountered doubters, interspersed with outright hecklers, in the Ohio audience. In the New York Times, the liberal columnist Bob Herbert dismissed her comments as arrogant and the bombing of Iraq as capricious. “We are becoming drunk with the idea that we are the world’s only superpower and therefore can do whatever we want to whomever we want,” he wrote. Running for the White House in 2000, none other than George W Bush promised more humility and strategic focus in American statecraft.He decried the trend towards “action without vision, activity without priority, and missions without end.”

US Marines cover the statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with the US flag in Baghdad's al-Fardous street 09 April 2003 as they prepare to bring it down. They removed it shortly afterwards and replaced it with an old Iraqi flag.     AFP PHOTO/Patrick US Marines cover the statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with the US flag in Baghdad's al-Fardous street 09 April 2003 as they prepare to bring it down. They removed it shortly afterwards and replaced it with an old Iraqi flag. AFP PHOTO/Patrick

An exhibition of overwhelming power: after invading Iraq, US troops cover up a statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003 © Patrick Baz/AFP via Getty Images

But neither Bush, another draft-evader, nor his advisers ever seriously contemplated a significant retraction of US military commitments and deployments. Bush’s gripe was that American power was adrift, not that it should return to shore. One option was to “contain” China, which Bush entered office branding a “strategic competitor.” In April 2001, some in his cabinet, like the defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who died this June), sought to use a mid-air collision between a US intelligence aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet as a chance to take a tougher line with Beijing. Bush himself declined. But when terrorists attacked New York and Washington in September, the way forward became clear. The new president took the opportunity to solve the problem he had identified in his campaign: not so much how to make America safe, as how to make American power seem essential. 

From the outset, Bush framed the attack as tragic proof of the centrality of the United States to world history. “America was targeted for attack,” he announced on the evening of September 11, “because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” No action the United States had taken could possibly feature in an explanation as to why a group of men had selected an enemy across the world and given their lives to strike it. Instead, America was attacked for what it was—a project so vital as to inspire both allegiance and hatred the world over. America was indispensable whatever it did. It would always have enemies. The only sensible course was to kill as many of them as possible, forever.

Because we could

As Americans learned that the group responsible for 9/11 was a terrorist network named al-Qaeda, they were also told, implicitly, that any specific assailant  did not matter so much. Al-Qaeda was merely one example of resistance to American leadership. Accordingly, the United States set out to wage war on that broad resistance, defining the enemy chiefly as “terror,” sometimes expandable to “tyranny” and “evil,” and at other times focused on militant Islam. To stick to the ragtag entity that actually attacked America would be to miss the larger stakes and give America too little to do.

On a practical level, al-Qaeda might have been swiftly decimated. A war on it alone could have been short and dreary, involving collecting intelligence, conducting raids and choking off finances. Defence secretary Rumsfeld worried persistently that the group’s huts and tents provided insufficiently spectacular targets: “We have to have something to hit,” as Bob Woodward quotes him telling the administration’s principals. “There is not a lot of al-Qaeda to hit.” This was even as Rumsfeld achieved his immediate wish to depose the Taliban government of Afghanistan, by May 2003, which led him—despite keeping thousands of troops in the country, who were destined to remain for another 18 years—to declare an end to major combat operations there.

Read: What were the causes of 9/11 by Peter Bergen

This war was going to have to be grander. In Afghanistan, the mission swelled from crushing al-Qaeda and punishing the Taliban to building and sustaining a democratic Afghan state. For the Bush administration and many outside it, even that arduous task did not suffice to exhibit America’s power to lead the world and its will to use that power. Rather it was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that supplied the right kind of enemy. Iraq possessed sizeable conventional forces that could nonetheless be swiftly vanquished through American shock and awe. In the 1990s, the United States had relied on sanctions and intermittent bombing. It allowed Saddam to defy America simply by surviving. Now ousting him would show that the United States could dispatch its foes when it so pleased. “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not,” Rumsfeld reportedly mused on the very day of 9/11. 

From one perspective, it scarcely mattered whether Saddam had significant ties to al-Qaeda or stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration advanced both claims to sell the war, but both were widely doubted at the time and later proved false. The real logic that drove America to launch the war remains difficult to comprehend. It is worth considering whether invading Iraq held, for some, a certain appeal precisely for being arbitrary. If the United States could attack a country and overthrow its government on the flimsiest of grounds, what else might it do? Who might be next? A capricious invasion carried a universal message: in the post-9/11 world, states would survive only on condition that America let them. They were dispensable, their sovereignty bestowed or withdrawn at the discretion of the indispensable nation.

“Perhaps invading Iraq held a certain appeal precisely for being arbitrary”

The arbitrariness of the war was articulated in real time by several foreign policy grandees. Asked why he supported the Iraq war, Henry Kissinger replied: “because Afghanistan wasn’t enough.” America’s enemies, he said, wanted to humiliate us, “and we need to humiliate them.” 

Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist of the New York Times, said much the same a few months after the Iraq invasion. On the Charlie Rose talk show on PBS, Friedman said he now appreciated why the war had been waged and was “unquestionably worth doing.” After being knocked back on 9/11, America had to go somewhere in the Middle East, take out a “very big stick,” and use it to dramatic effect. “What they needed to see,” Friedman said, “was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, ‘which part of this sentence don’t you understand: you don’t think we care about our open society?… Well, suck on this.’ That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia; it was part of that [terrorism] bubble. We could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.” Rather than pose a threat, Iraq offered a stage. On its territory, the United States would exhibit overwhelming power.

U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visit the Pentagon to view the damage the day after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images) U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visit the Pentagon to view the damage the day after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

Under fire: George W Bush and the late Donald Rumsfeld in front of the damaged Pentagon building after 9/11 © Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

That power was supposed to achieve something big, to effectuate some kind of transformation. Exactly what kind, however, always remained secondary. Some officials preferred to oust Saddam, install a new government and move on to new targets. More idealistic neoconservatives, along with liberals like Friedman, favoured an intensive occupation to fashion Iraq into a democracy and promote liberty around the world. President Bush would land on this position, ratifying it as the “freedom agenda” in his second term. Yet his administration scarcely developed plans for the aftermath of the invasion. And as soon as the insurgency began, the welfare of Iraqis—hitherto boisterously cited to justify toppling Saddam—suddenly lost salience. What mattered most was to position the United States as the font of world history and global order. 

In this context, “empire” briefly came into vogue to characterise America’s world role. Historically a dirty word in a country born of anti-imperial revolt, empire could never be endorsed by US political leaders. In the years after 9/11, however, a small clique of prominent commentators openly espoused it. They urged Americans to lose their squeamishness and accept the burden of “enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest,” as the avowedly liberal Canadian thinker and soon-to-be politician Michael Ignatieff counselled Americans in 2003. 

The point was not to call—at least not openly—for a new spate of invasions and occupations. But because a metropole formally controls its colonies, the empire metaphor illustrated America’s indispensability to the Middle East and the world more concretely than Albright had managed. It also accentuated the ability of the United States to master human events. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” a senior adviser to the president reportedly said in 2002. As the United States set out to remake nations in its image, then, it was also remaking its own self-image with an imperial gloss.

From indispensable to inexplicable

The idea of the indispensable nation corroded well before Donald Trump discarded it. Iraq was the chief source of the trouble. Meant to display America’s power and spread its model, the war instead revealed its destructive hubris. In US politics, the costs of war are well concealed by America’s all-volunteer armed forces and its penchant for public debt. But the sectarian violence stoked by the US occupation reached a pitch that penetrated America’s public consciousness. So, too, did the disillusioning brutality visited upon Iraqis by US prison guards at Abu Ghraib prison, US marines in Haditha and US contractors in Nisour Square. From August 2005 onwards—and despite rare glimmers of hope, such as in the Sunni Awakening against al-Qaeda or the outbreak of the Arab Spring—every Gallup poll would record majorities of the American public rejecting the Iraq War as a mistake. 

Opposition to the 2003 invasion would allow an unlikely candidate for president, Barack Obama, to break through and defeat his war-supporting rivals five years later. By then, even Friedman, somewhat chastened by experience, was despairing that “we are the ones in need of nation-building,” never mind Iraqis or Afghans. Obama took the opportunity to cast himself as a vessel for fundamental change. “I don’t want to just end the war,” he pledged, “I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” At his most disciplined, Obama sounded as though he offered a fresh strategy with a new mindset to match. When he promised to exit Iraq and focus on the terrorists who attacked America, he implied that the US was a nation with limited interests and responsibilities.

A few months into his presidency, Obama briefly got explicit. He seemed to break with the presumption that the United States, as the pinnacle of human liberty, possessed the singular right to lead the world. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he announced, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” His rivals pounced, pointing out that this was no exceptionalism at all. Either America’s place in the world was incomparable or America would become “just another nation,” in the words of Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican challenger in 2012. Fully a decade after 9/11, it remained an electoral necessity to trumpet America’s world-directing singularity. 

“Fully a decade after 9/11, it remained an electoral necessity to trumpet America’s world-directing singularity”

Obama swiftly retreated from defining America on terms commensurable with other nations. He spent the rest of his presidency issuing full-throated affirmations of exceptionalism, vowing to keep America “the one indispensable nation in world affairs.” His policies followed suit. If Iraq was to him the “dumb war,” Afghanistan was the good war, where American power was vital and just. Obama sent far more troops to the country than Bush ever did, seeking to beat back Taliban insurgents and build a modern state. Obama himself came to doubt that victory could be achieved. But unable to win, he proved unwilling to quit. He handed his successor a war with no conceivable end.

If America was indispensable, why was its power so resisted? And why were its options so limited, forcing it into what many began to call “endless wars”? Obama denied that charge but confirmed it in deed, and not only in Afghanistan. Instead of contracting the global war on terror, he rebranded it as a campaign to “counter violent extremism,” even though violent extremism is a permanent feature of world history. He ramped up the use of drone strikes, ordering more than 500 of them. In the last year of a president who had arrived as the peace candidate, the United States dropped an estimated 26,172 bombs on seven countries. As well as ceaseless, the fighting often seemed aimless. America did damage al-Qaeda and rout its offshoot, Islamic State. But the interventions could be so disconnected from 9/11 that in Libya, Syria and Yemen the United States sometimes found itself in alignment with al-Qaeda militants. If America was indispensable, why were its actions inexplicable?

CAMP LEJEUNE, NC - FEBRUARY 27:  President Barack Obama delivers an address to Marines and other military personnel at the largest Marine base on the East Coast on February 27, 2009 in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. President Obama outlined in his speech p CAMP LEJEUNE, NC - FEBRUARY 27: President Barack Obama delivers an address to Marines and other military personnel at the largest Marine base on the East Coast on February 27, 2009 in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. President Obama outlined in his speech p

Barack Obama in 2009 tells US marines about his plans to withdraw from Iraq © Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images

Donald Trump had an answer: the United States was not indispensable. Another unlikely candidate for president, he capitalised on public discontent by flouting post-9/11 pieties. America, he said, had no business spreading its example, and only sapped its power by trying. Rather than stand tall, “we’re like a third-world country,” he repeated. To the extent an international order existed, it was weakening the United States; how absurd for America to lead it. Trump championed “Americanism, not globalism.” He severed the United States from its world-ordering pretensions.

It was the chauvinist Trump, not the intellectual Obama, who reimagined America as just another nation, which would pursue its distinctive interests and expect other countries to advance their own. But Trump never developed an account of what those American interests actually were. He preferred to gesture and fiddle. In office, he accepted the globe-spanning allies and enemies he had inherited, attempting only to tweak America’s position towards each. And despite detaching US military superiority from any claim to moral superiority, Trump proved thoroughly conventional in favouring, indeed fetishising, the former. “Our military dominance must be unquestioned,” he repeated. Once again, it was time to get tough with foreigners who preyed on American weakness. No longer fancying itself indispensable to the world, the United States would still dominate the world.

A nation among nations

In January 2017, as Joe Biden left the vice presidency, he expressed hope that the United States would continue to “fulfil our historic responsibility as the indispensable nation.” This year, as president, the same man has decided to withdraw all American ground troops from Afghanistan by 11th September. If he follows through—and does not ramp up aerial strikes to compensate—the 20th anniversary of 9/11 will be the first in which the United States will not be waging war in the country from which the attacks were planned. 

To be sure, ending America’s war in Afghanistan will not on its own terminate US violence across the greater Middle East, nor much alter America’s globe-spanning military role. Perhaps the president’s only intention is to make American hegemony more sustainable. Yet the act of quitting Afghanistan implies that the war’s objectives were wrong—that it was a mistake to try to make America indispensable to the destiny of this far-off land. Afghans will now determine their fate. While the United States will remain militarily engaged purely to prevent attacks on itself, it finally considers itself inessential—dispensable—to the basic direction the country takes. 

NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 11: Family members of 9/11 victims tribute their loved ones on the 19th anniversary of September 11 attacks in New York City, United States on September 11, 2020. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 11: Family members of 9/11 victims tribute their loved ones on the 19th anniversary of September 11 attacks in New York City, United States on September 11, 2020. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Grief and the void—tributes left at the 9/11 memorial © Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Changing America’s larger global role will be far more difficult. But restoring old ways seems unlikely, too. By staking the legitimacy of US global supremacy on their ultimately disastrous response to 9/11, successive leaders tarnished the “indispensable nation” project among Americans themselves. International trends, meanwhile, will force choices. A rising China is becoming a formidable rival against which the United States could make itself indispensable. Yet America would have to pay the price of restricting its leadership to the anti-China portion of the world, not to mention risking major war. Planetary threats, namely climate change and pandemic disease, would remove geographic constraints on America’s scope for leadership, giving the country plenty to do if it were serious about saving the world. But these offer none of the frisson of having enemies to subdue.

Something really has changed since 9/11, but only gradually. It is now—just about—possible to see how the United States might find its way to becoming a nation among nations, no longer dominant but no longer minding. On such a view, the US government would remain literally indispensable to the people of one country: its own. It would do its part in the world precisely by declining to stand above it. In another two decades from now, the legacy of 9/11 and especially the wars in its wake might be easier to spot. Both America and the world as a whole would be better for taking the opportunity to change.