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7 September 2011, Gateway House

America: Ten years after 9/11

A decade after 9/11, the U.S. has prevented further terrorist attacks - a major achievement. But with a $1.3 trillion budget deficit, a debt downgrade, and 24 million Americans searching for jobs, the U.S. needs to attend to matters at home rather than intervening in the world's affairs.

Editorial Advisor, Gateway House

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When the first plane hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 A.M. on September 11, 2001, it looked, from the 39th floor of a Rockefeller Center office building, like a small single flight went off course. When the second plane struck Tower II at 9:03 A.M., someone said “Oh my God, a press plane must have come too close”. Except we all knew the press used helicopters not planes.

When the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 A.M. a young woman whispered: “All of those people just died.”When the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 A.M., we were working on a new magazine that would go to press the next night.

Great tragedy can paralyze or motivate. There’s not a lot of middle ground.  As editors watching the Twin Towers turn to rubble, our job was to make the best sense we could of what happened in time for a magazine deadline the following night. Colleagues blown out of their newsroom at the Wall Street Journal by the attack produced a newspaper from a remote location for the following morning. Wall Street bosses from firms where dozens were killed pulled together staffers to reopen within days. Police, firemen, medics and those who surged into the smoking rubble at the Pentagon in Washington, as well as in New York to dig out buried victims, were the true heroes. In a pasture 80 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, Pa. first responders removed 44 bodies from crashed United Airlines Flight 93, the plane where the passengers had overpowered the highjackers.

On Sunday Sept. 11, a decade after the fateful 9/11, politicians, dignitaries and selected survivors from families who lost a dad, mother, son, daughter or relative will assemble by invitation at Ground Zero to honor the dead and mark a nation’s resilience.

Time heals. Memories fade some. Children who lost parents have grown up with a keepsake photo, ring or earring and moved on. But like a fault in the earth’s crust, a deep fissure from that attack remains just beneath the nation’s surface.

The line was etched just 15 days after the attack. “Either you are with us or against us in the fight against terror,” President George W. Bush declared in a joint press conference with French President Jacques Chirac.  There is no neutrality, Bush had decreed, evoking the raw emotions of 9/11 itself: “All nations, if they want to fight terror, must do something.” He formalized this policy in a U.N. speech a few days later and soon after declared America’s right to launch a first strike against a potential terrorist nation, known as the doctrine of pre-emption.

From that day on, the U.S. has wrestled with some hard lessons about itself and the world. Polls show Americans value their independent superpower status as much as ever. But they wonder whom to trust at home and abroad.

Their concerns:

Big Security Failure: In the 9/11 Commission report, the public found out that Washington had failed to protect the people despite repeated warnings. Agencies from the CIA, the FBI, the White House and the Defense Department dismissed impassioned pleas from their ranks about the mission of Osama Bin Laden from Afghanistan and the highjackers while they were living in the U.S.

Big Economic Failure: Six years after 9/11, the lesson that an expensive big government can fail hugely was repeated with the global sub-prime economic crash. Investigations have documented that the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, bank regulatory agencies, independent ratings agencies like Standard & Poors and Moodys and mortgage buyers like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac opened the gates for Wall Street bank abuses. Having been hit twice in a decade, voters’ distrust of Washington and big government failure to protect is now the core issue in next year’s Presidential election.

New International Alliances: A year after 9/11, President George W. Bush was lining up a “coalition of the willing” for his war in Iraq. There were not many prominent signers except for Britain. But Bush also had his coalition against terrorism, in which China, Russia and many lesser states willing to crack down on possible terrorists were given free rein. On the other side was Bush’s “axis of evil” with Iran, Iraq and North Korea as charter members. China initiated a crackdown on Muslim Uighur leaders in its western provinces and ramped up sanctions on the press and dissents everywhere that is increasing to this day.

In the region that President Clinton had called “the most dangerous nuclear flashpoint in the world,” – India and Pakistan – nukes were out and terrorism was in. In 2005, Bush announced that the U.S. would back India’s arrival as a new world power, through a civilian nuclear deal. In the same year, when Pakistan’s President Musharraf expressed concern about backing the U.S. in Afghanistan, reports said Bush replied with the “either you are with us or you are against us” doctrine and got swift approval.

Personal Privacy: Mass murderer Osama Bin Laden would never make a government list of those who have greatly changed the world, but every time you give up a tube of tooth paste, strip for guards or have a laptop stolen off an airport scanner belt anywhere in the world it’s hard not to see his pernicious influence.  Telecom companies turn over personal phone records to police in a blink, government surveillance of personal calls is routine and corporations require personal ID before a pass to enter their premises is issued. Jacqueline Leo, an online editor, added up the U.S. cost from Bin Laden from security spending to ordinary life: $3 trillion.

Today’s U.S politics all but requires that parties and candidates look and act dramatically different, otherwise why vote for a choice? But a decade after 9/11 Bush and Obama look far more aligned on international policy than at odds.

Bush’s rhetoric and personality was hot. President Barrack Obama softened the tone and draped his presidency in friendlier international garb –especially in opposing torture– but to some scholars his policy is more Bush with a veil than a new American tack. Heatedly denounced during the campaign, the Guantanamo detention center for terrorist suspects that Obama promised to close looks as secure as ever. Obama is conducting three Middle Eastern wars – Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and his military budget is at $800 billion versus Bush’s highest of $650 billion. Some scholars see clear parallels.

In the Middle East, the “Bush-Obama agenda marches on” says historian Russell Walter Mead of the Council of Foreign Relations:

President Obama is pushing a democracy agenda in the Middle East that is as aggressive as President Bush’s; he adopts regime change by violence if necessary as a core component of his regional approach and, to put it mildly, he is not afraid to bomb.

A pro-Obama commentator, Peter Beinart asserts that with the killing of Osama Bin Laden and his successors, the President has eviscerated Al Qaeda to the point where jihadism “is sliding into irrelevance” and that the real threat ahead will be the rise of authoritarian capitalism from China. To most Americans a huge downgrade in a terrorist threat to the U.S. would be glorious news, but what they see each day is war from the Arab Spring advancing across the Middle East. That may mean good news for the next leaders of Libya, but who will they be? The Syrian president is still in power and
killing his people. The military seems back in control in Egypt, which may be good or bad, and few outside of specialists can predict which nation might launch the next Arab Spring campaign.

The polarization of the world into “for or against” remains as relevant as ever. But now there is also a huge economic and political cost with it that wasn’t there in the years after Ground Zero when the public signed on to eliminate terrorists. With a $1.3 trillion budget deficit, 24 million Americans searching for jobs, a debt downgrade and a housing crisis without an end in sight, the dire economic outlook vastly outweighs any foreign policy credits ten years after 9/11.

Instead, what the world sees is two leaders trading places on a blood smeared canvas.

Bush attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan and initiated a preemptive war with Iraq, a nation not part of the 9/11 plot, over weapons of mass destruction. Obama declared the unpopular Iraq war a failure, and began using drones to attack the Taliban returning to Afghanistan, where he blamed Bush for failing to win a stable peace.

U.S. troops are now leaving Iraq with an indefinite but far better chance for stability than a strife torn, unmanageable Afghanistan, which Obama says he will leave next year – sort of declaring victory but surely not unrolling the “Mission Accomplished” banner that Bush foolishly hung out in 2003. To some pundits, the present situation looks more like a 21st century version of Vietnam.

So on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 the U.S. has prevented further terrorist attacks, a major accomplishment. The voters have given up the generous personal liberty and freedom they had before Ground Zero, but have shown they will unite and sacrifice with boundless good will for the right reason. Even as this is written, blogs are recalling the lines to give blood, thousands of small donations and unpaid rescuers, from steelworkers to surgeons, who showed up from everywhere on Sept. 12 to stay as long as needed. The nation’s ability to sacrifice for the right cause and leader is deeply embedded.

But Obama is now one of the most unpopular presidents in modern history and his opposition is even more disliked. Polls show Americans are tired of spending and intervening in others’ regional wars – not because they are isolationists but because they see vast problems at home.

The existing situation in Afghanistan isn’t a foreign policy choice for Obama but an economic one. After seeing costs of $800 million for the intervention in Libya, plus new requests of $160 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his ability to sell more intervention is over. He won’t get re-elected unless he can forcefully produce results rather than administer soothing rhetoric. The lesson on this 10 year anniversary may be that the U. S. needs to repair itself first, while keeping a guiding, rather than intervening, hand in the world’s affairs.

Bob Dowling is an independent international journalist and Editorial Advisor to Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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