Comment: U.S. met 9/11 with old fights and familiar illusions

The terrorist attack gave America a renewed sense of purpose but one that was led by vague objectives and false assumptions.

By Aziz Rana / Special to The Washington Post

When terrorist hijackers caused unspeakable tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 2,977 people, destroying the twin towers and striking the Pentagon, the day’s horrors, the conventional wisdom had it, changed everything.

Many Americans feared that the country had entered a new stage in which large-scale domestic attacks by foreign terrorists would become commonplace. But they also voiced confidence in the capacity of the U.S. government to vanquish foes and eliminate threats. In words that President George W. Bush often repeated, “We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”

Twenty years later, the state of affairs is very different. The anniversary of 9/11 is inescapably intertwined with unfolding events in Afghanistan, marked by the Taliban’s swift return to power, the chaotic American exit, the deadly Kabul airport attack and concerns for the fate of Afghans who supported the long U.S. war there. While the terrorism threat proved much less severe than initially feared, the United States appears to be reckoning with the limits of its power. Why did things turn out this way? And what accounts for the foreign policy quagmires that ended up defining the “war on terror”?

Reflection on that day and the 20 years since: For all the shared belief that 9/11 had launched a new chapter, the response involved an intense look backward. Politicians sought to recapture a past definitively gone — especially the mid-20th-century golden age of American global standing — and embraced a caricatured version of those years that emphasized military adventurism, Manichaean us-vs.-them thinking and national security excess. The problem, though, was that the world had changed. As a result, 20 years on from 9/11, recalling the devastation of that terrible day invites reflection too on the forever wars, rights abuses and xenophobia that have come to define its legacy.

After 9/11, references to World War II and the Cold War were ubiquitous. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings quickly likened the attack to Pearl Harbor and called it an “act of war,” and both USA Today and the New York Post adopted the phrase for front-page headlines the next morning. Comparisons between the Greatest Generation and the new era’s young people abounded, with Newsweek dubbing them “Generation 9-11,” who might feel called to action by “working for the government, maybe joining the FBI or the CIA.”

Bush leaned heavily into these parallels. His 2002 State of the Union address famously proclaimed the United States’ enemies an “axis of evil,” invoking the Axis powers of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and imperial Japan. He emphasized how the “war on terror,” like the Cold War, would be a generational struggle, a “campaign” that “may not be finished on our watch, yet it must be and it will be waged on our watch.” Linking more explicitly to mid-century foes, Bush declared that groups like al-Qaida “follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism,” later calling them “Islamic fascists.” Even the name of the period’s key institutional legacy, the new Department of Homeland Security, invoked the garrison state and national security infrastructure built in the wake of Pearl Harbor.

Embracing the metaphors of World War II: It was not surprising that, faced with 9/11’s horrific violence, Americans would embrace the metaphor of war and draw comparisons to Pearl Harbor. But the invocations of World War II and the early Cold War also spoke to something deeper. Those mid-century years were a time of American ascendance and clear mission. Conflicts with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union solidified a shared story about the nation: that the United States from the founding had been committed to principles of equality, democracy and personal liberty. In this narrative, the United States served as a beacon on the global stage, with a built-in project to safeguard freedom and peace and a concomitant right to intervene wherever instability arose.

The Soviet collapse only supercharged a bipartisan triumphalism, promoting too a broad belief in the inevitability of aggressive market capitalism. It also reframed political debates about the legitimacy and excesses of U.S. Cold War interventions, including coups, assassinations, illegal bombing campaigns, the war in Vietnam and support for countless dictators. At home, the FBI and CIA conducted surveillance and disruption of civil rights groups and antiwar activists, and the political fallout of foreign and domestic actions had cut short both Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s presidencies. But in the afterglow of Soviet defeat, such reflection on the Cold War’s means gave way to overwhelming pride in its end: fulfillment of American destiny and victory over an existential foe.

Although the start of the 21st century retained this triumphalism, the nation increasingly seemed unmoored. A decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, politicians and commentators worried that the country was bereft of national purpose, especially without a unifying antagonist. Both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had turned to volunteerism, whether in the form of “a thousand points of light” or AmeriCorps, as a way of instilling shared commitment and service. Still, by the early days of George W. Bush’s presidency, American politics appeared most defined by growing polarization and bitter infighting, as exhibited by Clinton’s impeachment and the contested 2000 presidential election.

Suspicion of big government, but not the military: All of this created a striking status quo on the eve of 9/11. Both parties criticized “big government” with respect to the economy, but the state’s security apparatus — the military, the CIA, the FBI, the police — enjoyed broad approval. U.S. willingness to use force featured prominently in conventional explanations for Cold War success, buttressing popular support for the national security establishment. As Barack Obama would later assert, while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the world had been made safe in the 20th century by “the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” Beginning in 1989, the military was the American institution that consistently held the highest public confidence in Gallup surveys, with approval rates rising by double digits since the 1970s. This had ripple effects even among liberals, where the most common critique of U.S. foreign policy during the 1990s came from those — like future Obama (and Biden) official Samantha Power — who argued for more military action, but on behalf of human rights. Rather than an intervener in thorny Asian and African political struggles over colonialism or socialism, the U.S. military seemed recast as an apolitical moral agent to stop bad global actors or “rogue states.”

This sentiment was part of a real bipartisan embrace of the state’s potential to address even domestic social issues by force. “Broken windows” policing was in vogue, along with the notion that more aggressive law enforcement and stiffer prison sentences would keep Americans safe, no matter that the result was a system of mass incarceration that targeted minority communities and intensified racial and class disparities. At the border, Clinton-era laws created a massive detention and deportation apparatus, exponentially increasing the number of people jailed. On the morning of 9/11, Bush sat atop a security infrastructure — already expanding in the contexts of policing and immigration — that enjoyed a profound degree of goodwill, especially by comparison with the 1960s and 1970s. But it lacked a unifying focus.

A sense of purpose: For those around Bush, 9/11 shifted everything, in part because it ended that political drift. When Bush declared, in the “axis of evil” speech, that all Americans who lived through the day’s events “have been changed by them” and that the country had been “called to a unique role in human events,” he turned the page on the previous decade’s uncertainties; including whether, with few overarching threats to the global order, the world still needed the United States. But in asserting the end of post-Cold War malaise, the president did not usher in a genuine search for new worldviews and approaches. Bush’s rhetoric highlighted how 9/11 instead returned Americans to the mid-century era of indispensability. And since the United States was to engage again in the type of existential struggles that had given the country meaning, the policies should follow suit; even if they failed to match the new moment.

Partly, this framing was a product of Bush’s foreign policy team, composed of inveterate Cold Warriors, from national security adviser and Soviet specialist Condoleezza Rice to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had held the same job in the 1970s under Gerald Ford. They drew from the past a combination of militarism and absolute moral certainty: The world had been divided into friends and enemies, and the United States had won the Cold War because it was willing to get its hands dirty in Asia and Latin America, and had refused to cede ground to its foes. When Bush declared, nine days after the attacks, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” he returned to that familiar playbook.

One problem with this approach was that it steadily became clear that al-Qaida, a relatively small group of terrorists mostly encamped in Afghanistan, was dangerous but hardly an existential threat; certainly not on the scale of the Nazis or the Soviets. As Rumsfeld himself noted of the fall 2001 bombing campaign in Afghanistan, “There is not a lot of al-Qaida to hit.” In the 20 years since, more Americans have been killed inside the United States by far-right extremists than by Islamists (114 as opposed to 107, with about half of the latter dying in the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting).

Expanding the list of enemies: Still, in embracing an expansive vision of the United States pitted in battle against the enemies of freedom, officials moved well beyond holding accountable the specific actors involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. They turned instead to the project of overcoming “terror” itself. And when Bush named Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the main “axis of evil” — countries with no connection at all to 9/11 — the fight morphed into one against any state or entity, especially in the Middle East, that opposed American dominance or security objectives. Framed that way, for Bush officials, and for many Democrats, it made sense to expand the war to an invasion of Iraq. Thomas Friedman infamously declared that the Iraq War demonstrated American commitment to maintaining its global standing: “What they needed to see 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.’”

All this Manichaean posturing erased any likelihood of seriously reconceiving the American role, in the Middle East or elsewhere. A decade before 9/11, the United States fought a war against Iraq and became, for all intents and purposes, a key regional power, aligned with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel. Though our Persian Gulf allies’ internal politics had created the cauldron for al-Qaida’s development, focusing instead on Iran and Iraq redoubled the existing strategic configuration. It also compounded a long-term problem for the war on terror, one that had plagued the Cold War as well: Officials couched specific and problematic security alliances in vague and sweeping language of freedom and democracy. When faced with opposition on the ground or the collapse of U.S. strategies, they time and again read hostility as a product of local inadequacies rather than of competing political desires and rivalries. Lawmakers in both parties blamed reversals in Iraq on Iraqis themselves, with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., stating in 2006, in near-identical terms, that Iraqis seemed “incapable of solving their own problems” or “unable or unwilling” to “stabilize their country.”

“Nothing we won’t do”: To make matters worse, Bush officials also revived old Cold War means, updated for the new anti-terrorism agenda. Those around Bush seemingly had few doubts about the tactics used in that earlier struggle. Whatever the 1970s recriminations about rights abuses and overseas violence, officials after 9/11 repeated past arguments that global victory required a willingness to operate at the edges of the law. As CIA Director George Tenet bluntly stated in 2002, “There’s nothing we won’t do, nothing we won’t try.,” which seemed to absolve practices including the use of black sites, disappearances, indefinite detention and torture. In addition to failing on their own terms, such tactics undermined any U.S. effort to claim a global moral high ground.

Initially, the war on terror appeared to change the country’s political trajectory, forging a common mission and providing the unifying effect that elites believed America needed. Against the extreme polarization of 2021, it can be hard to recall the degree of support Bush enjoyed shortly after the attacks: His approval rating reached 90 percent in late September 2001 and again rose to 71 percent in the heady days of Saddam Hussein’s fall in Iraq in April 2003. There were few of the generational disagreements that mark our current political divisions. Young people after 9/11 showed a remarkable amount of faith in the judgment of those in power, with 85 percent of “young Americans” supporting the war in Afghanistan and 83 percent approving of Bush in November 2001.

All of this translated into formal policies. The Patriot Act, which dramatically expanded domestic surveillance powers, passed the Senate 98 to 1 (only Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin voted no). Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., was the only lawmaker to vote against the sweeping 2001 military authorization that gave Bush the broad power to use “all necessary” force against any person or group “he determines” was linked to 9/11. That authorization became the White House’s legal basis for actions from the war in Afghanistan to targeted killings and detention and interrogation practices worldwide. Despite domestic and global protests, the Iraq War enjoyed the approval of a sizable American majority in 2003. And even among opponents of that particular conflict, questioning the overarching war on terror was a political nonstarter throughout the decade that followed.

Ambitions fade with bloodshed: But as the country moved further away from the events of 9/11, the galvanizing ambitions behind the war on terror — including the notion of restoring national purpose — curdled. Americans found themselves grappling with images from Abu Ghraib, or stories of innocent people, such as Mohamedou Ould Slahi, tortured and detained for years at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere. Most critically, these means did not appear to further any discernible ends. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became defined by premature and repetitive declarations of victory, news reports of civilians mistakenly killed, and seemingly endless bloodshed.

Partly, that was because the ultimate goal had never really been clear. Creating “democracy” remained a vague objective, especially as U.S. officials often engaged in a kind of wish fulfillment; that regional strategic interests, to check Iran or to promote pliable allies, would somehow have widespread local support.

The tensions instead created a cycle of making dubious alliances, facing opposition on the ground, intervening as a response, then sparking more violence and recriminations. Future administrations seemed trapped into repeating the cycle. Obama entered office declaring that the prison at Guantánamo would be closed, but he left with it still open. He announced a withdrawal plan for Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 but made little headway. Rather than a break from the Bush years, the Obama presidency became closely identified with drone strikes and more “collateral damage.” The war on terror may have been renamed “overseas contingency operations,” but much of the security approach and the drift persisted.

Politics of xenophobia: Domestically, these endless conflicts in Muslim-majority countries created a growing politics of xenophobia. Part of this resulted from the disconnect between official proclamations that the United States was not at war with Islam, as Bush emphatically stated, and the reality of a massive counterterrorism framework directed specifically at Muslims. The Justice Department oversaw the detention of more than 1,000 Muslims without cause immediately after 9/11, then created registration systems for the monitoring of immigrants and travelers from 24 Arab- or Muslim-majority countries, alongside the “axis” nation of North Korea. Eventually it became evident that such communities in the United States posed no more of a terrorism threat than any other. And, as it turned out, 9/11 appeared to be a singular event, rather than a harbinger of repeated attacks on American soil. Still, of the 38 groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations after 9/11 — such that providing “material support” to them became a crime, including speech supporting a group’s lawful activities — 35 were Islamist. Scholars concluded that Muslim surveillance was so extensive, between local police and the FBI, that there was “reason to believe that there are informants at each and every mosque in the United States.”

The intensity of the counterterrorism orientation made it hard to maintain that Muslims were not being treated as a community apart. But notably, although the immediate post-9/11 period produced a spike in anti-Muslim assaults, those numbers soon declined. It was only after a decade of sustained government targeting that assaults dramatically rose again during the 2010s, with the 127 reported incidents in 2016 well exceeding 2001 figures. This increase had little to do with any objective threat, given the long distance from 9/11, the overwhelming opposition among Muslim communities to al-Qaida-inspired terrorism and the real weakness of terrorist groups.

Regardless, these assaults highlighted how some Americans had come to internalize more than a decade of war: Fifteen years of policy had emphasized fears about Muslims. At the same time, more Americans, especially on the right, explained the country’s strategic failures in the war on terror — with thousands of U.S. soldiers dead and hundreds of thousands of civilians killed overseas — as a function of racial and cultural flaws in Muslim societies. These societies, the argument went, could not be made free, no matter what Americans tried.

Donald Trump gave voice and clarity to this bigoted position, referring to Muslims during his 2016 campaign, for instance, as “a group of people that is very sick.” That year’s explosion in anti-Muslim incidents was not a coincidence. Trump both attacked the Iraq War — which he had initially supported — and called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, the latter idea an extreme version of existing counterterrorism policy. According to Trumpian logic, the problem with the Bush years was the belief that culturally threatening outsiders could ever be part of Friedman’s “open society.” Rather, Americans had to reassert the value of the homeland and build a wall to protect against racial foreigners of all kinds. None of this, however, meant curtailing the dramatic expansion of security spending or reevaluating the war on terror paradigm. Keeping America safe still required a belligerent us-vs.-them stance toward the world, especially the non-White world.

Loss of public confidence: So the choices made after 9/11 did transform American life, but not necessarily in ways most Americans in 2001 would have expected or wanted. These decisions dramatically expanded the security apparatus, led to wars of occupation, and fed a domestic politics of Islamophobia and discontent that helped fuel the rise of white supremacy. And the rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s government as the United States withdrew last month underscores perhaps the most surprising legacy of 9/11: the profound breakdown of public confidence in political elites and governing institutions over the last 20 years.

In the early 2000s, faith in an America at war and in unbridled capitalism was at a fever pitch. Officials like Paul Bremer, the Coalition Provisional Authority boss in Iraq, often joined the two, as when he imagined that Iraq’s state-run economy could be replaced in one fell swoop with a flat tax and systematic deregulation. But the following years paired the intelligence failures and reversals of the war on terror with a near-collapse of the global financial system, raising questions about the trustworthiness and legitimacy of both national security and economic expertise.

Still, the current environment does seem to repeat that of 2001 in one key way; namely, in the political desire to turn back the clock. Trumpism is infused with a nostalgia for a mythic past, one before threatening outsiders. And part of the popular support for President Biden can be read as the hope simply to go back to any time before the present, when American politics felt normal.

A return to the search for purpose: But an important lesson of the response to 9/11 lies in the pitfalls of nostalgia. Bush-era rhetoric and policy used a simplified, triumphalist account of the Greatest Generation’s conflicts to pursue destructive ends. Twenty years later, pressure is growing again, especially given the failures in Afghanistan, to find new ways to display American power, to prove that, as Biden has said, “America is back.” That impulse was present in the president’s speech after the Kabul airport attack, with his vow to “make you pay” sounding like a continuation of the war on terror’s vengeance and collective punishment. Discussions of pivoting away from the Middle East to different hot spots — such as calls to focus on the Asia-Pacific theater and a new Cold War with China — appear caught in the same loop. Even if officials wrap up what remains of the war on terror, if they simply redirect the same mid-century, Manichaean, militarized framing revived after 9/11, it shows that little was learned. The quest for dominance has generated neither peace nor democracy at home or abroad. Returning to the same well is unlikely to produce a different outcome.

This weekend, along with remembrances of the lives lost on 9/11 and in the wars that followed, perhaps Americans can begin the genuine rethinking that the end of the Cold War invited and that the attacks in 2001 ended up foreclosing. This starts by seriously confronting what the war on terror produced and its institutional footprints. Should we endorse use-of-force authorizations that give presidents near-total discretion to fight forever wars? How much of the overgrown domestic security infrastructure around mass surveillance, detention, deportation and aggressive prosecution is actually necessary? What should be done about the culture of impunity that has allowed officials who oversaw abuse to evade political, let alone legal, consequences? What about the defense contracting that in Afghanistan gave billions of dollars to private U.S. companies, but did very little to sustain a local army or a government with internal credibility? Those trillions plowed into overseas conflicts stand in sharp contrast to decades of disinvestment at home, a reality made even starker by unfolding health and economic crises. Finally, what responsibility do we have to people caught up in American actions; whether Afghans today fleeing the return of the Taliban or innocent detainees denied their day in court?

Truly moving forward will require accounting for the past. But that can’t happen if we remain entranced by a flawed image of a bygone America.

Aziz Rana is the Richard and Lois Cole professor of law at Cornell Law School and a fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is the author of “The Two Faces of American Freedom.”

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