Washngton: The aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks marked the height of a particular American moment on the world stage.
Here was the United States, no longer just the triumphant victor of the Cold War, but a wounded “unipolar” superpower ready to mete out justice on a global scale. The enemy was not a rival hegemonic power, but an amorphous concept (“terror”) that American leadership linked to both a web of Islamist extremists and adversarial autocratic regimes. The results were the costly invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the massive expansion of the US security state, and a new global awareness of the limits — rather than the potency — of American power.
In the full bloom of its post-9/11 mandate, the George W. Bush administration shrugged off the growing concerns of some European allies over its invasion of Iraq and the reprimands of top officials at the United Nations. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” an anonymous White House official, widely believed to be Republican strategist Karl Rove, told the New York Times Magazine in 2004. “We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
What the polls say
Two decades after 9/11, that legacy of hubris hangs over Washington, a bad odour that successive administrations have tried and failed to dispel. No matter the messiness of the US withdrawal last month, polling shows the overwhelming majority of the American public still supports pulling troops out of Afghanistan. Few serious politicians in either of the country’s major parties call for new military interventions overseas. A growing body of lawmakers also wants to curb the White House’s powers to wage war in the first place.
Former president Donald Trump argued that the United States should generally stay out of foreign conflicts, especially if it has to foot the bill for the effort. President Joe Biden, like Trump, has sought to leave the 9/11 era behind, reframing America’s foreign policy ambitions around the challenge of China. The concept of “great-power competition” is once more in vogue. In foreign capitals from Europe to Asia, officials recognise that old understandings surrounding the Pax Americana are fading. Some are losing confidence in the United States. Others sense geopolitical opportunity.
The Iraq War, in particular, undermined America’s standing in the world. In September 2002, half a year before the invasion, former South African president Nelson Mandela decried the “arrogant” unilateralism of the Bush administration. “We are really appalled by any country, whether it be a superpower or a small country, that goes outside the United Nations and attacks independent countries,” he said.
According to Pew polling, US favourability around the world plummeted thereafter, only to recover with the election of Barack Obama, who campaigned on his opposition to the Iraq War. Obama pulled out US forces deployed in the country, but he was at the helm when state failure in Iraq and Syria spawned the Islamic State (Daesh terror network) and new waves of upheaval and violence. The American project in Iraq became a cautionary tale - the empire’s attempt to create a new reality, as the Bush official boasted, was a delusion.
“The invasion and its chaotic, violent and destabilising aftermath shattered the notion that the United States is indispensable and a force for democracy,” Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Today’s WorldView. “Had there been no invasion of Iraq, the mythology of American exceptionalism at home and abroad would have persisted among elites for a lot longer.”
The expensive and bloody entanglements
Rather than being in history’s driving seat, America’s policy elites are more aware that they, too, are passengers. The expensive, bloody entanglements in Afghanistan and Iraq ran alongside an epochal financial crisis that shocked the global economy. The United States recovered better than many other developed countries, but a necessary inwardness set in, with many politicians more preoccupied by the need for renewal and rebuilding at home than calls for intervention abroad. “9/11 has shattered the US pretension to global indispensability,” wrote Stephen Wertheim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Two decades more and the United States might yet become a nation among nations, no longer lording its power over others to get what it needs.”
But the United States does still appear to be girding itself for another confrontation. The Biden administration is attempting to pull off the strategic pivot to Asia - where China looms - that its predecessors also sought but couldn’t quite achieve. Myriad analysts cast the counterterrorism expenditure and focus of the past two decades as a wasteful distraction from the real challenges of the 21st century.
“We invested trillions of dollars in upgrading land forces and counterterror and counterinsurgency forces that have no applicability to the naval and air theater that is the Pacific,” Gregory Poling, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told Stars and Stripes. “Who knows what our naval modernisation could look like right now had we not spent trillions of dollars for 20 years on the Army? The budget fights and fights over what the services will look like are just now getting started, when they should have started 20 years ago, given China’s naval modernization.”
American debacles in the Middle East reinforced a narrative popular in Beijing about the United States’ supposedly inevitable decline on the world stage. “China has been able to capitalize on the opportunity to bide its time and build its strength,” wrote Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center. “The power balance between the United States and China most likely would have evolved in the same direction without 9/11. However, the resources, focus, and time the United States poured into the War on Terror certainly expedited the shift.”
That shift sits heavily on a generation of American policymakers. “In terms of geopolitical influence,” wrote former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes, “the [Chinese Communist Party] has been the biggest beneficiary of the war on terror.”