The Tribute in Light that will mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center is tested in New York on September 3 (Photo: Getty Images)
ON SATURDAY, September 11th, Joe Biden will visit all three memorials to the 2,977 people murdered by Al Qaeda’s hijackers 20 years ago. He is expected to appear first at Ground Zero, where the first hijacked airliner struck the World Trade Center’s North Tower, at 8.46AM on September 11th, 2001.
Seventeen minutes later the second plane, sharking in over Lower Manhattan, struck the South Tower—and the enormity of the attack became clear. Most of the day’s casualties were trapped on lofty floors above the two airliners’ point of impact, as the twin towers’ burned and collapsed. Around 200 leapt to their deaths, plummeting for 10 seconds onto the concrete far below. The investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald, located on the North Tower’s 101st-105th floors, alone lost 658 employees.
Biden will also visit the Pentagon, a short drive across the Potomac River from the White House, where at 9.37AM the third hijacked plane struck. It ploughed into the western side of the Department of Defense’s headquarters—more a small city than a building—killing 125. Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, a braver man than he was wise, was accosted by his staff as he ran pell-mell towards the disaster-zone.
Finally Biden will take a trip to a smaller memorial, outside the village of Shanksville, in southern Pennsylvania. This is where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a farmer’s field at 10.03AM. It is thought to have been headed for either the White House or the Capitol Building. But the fourth hijacked plane’s passengers, having learned of the calamity unfolding in Manhattan, elected to rush the hijackers to prevent its arrival. Faced with losing control of the airliner, its terrorist pilots rolled and crashed the plane, killing everyone aboard.
Anniversaries come and go—but it feels hard to overstate the gravity of this one. When Barack Obama memorialised the attacks in 2011, the war on terror launched by his predecessor was still raging. Osama bin Laden had been hunted down by US special forces in Pakistan only a few months before. There were over 100,000 US troops fighting in Afghanistan. And though Obama had withdrawn most American forces from Iraq, thousands remained in support of the government there.
Fighting terrorists, a mission that George W Bush had portrayed as a historic struggle—comparable to America’s battles with fascism and communism—had become central to American foreign and security policy. Not even Obama, a critic of his predecessors’ efforts, especially the war in Iraq, challenged that. “Two million Americans have gone to war since 9/11,” he said in his 10th anniversary speech. “They have demonstrated that those who do us harm cannot hide from the reach of justice, anywhere in the world.”
Another decade on, and Biden will deliver a very different message. After the withdrawal of America’s last troops from Afghanistan last month, the post-9/11 wars are over. And America now has more than terrorists to worry about. It faces increasingly hostile competition with China, and also climate change, pandemics, cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation. In fact, the two-decades-long fixation with terrorism now looks almost naïve—a product of the superpower, in a moment of rare unipolarity, having too little other stuff to worry about back then. But the unipolar moment has now emphatically passed. And Biden is resolved, in effect, to reduce America’s fixation with counter-terrorism in favour of bringing more attention to other concerns, especially China and the climate.
He had hoped to signal this change in grand style this week. Having originally timed the withdrawal from Afghanistan to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11, Biden had planned to announce a bright new era in American foreign policy. Yet the debacle in Afghanistan has made this harder. It has also focused minds on the enormous American failures that defined much of the 9/11 era.
he wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were long ago recognised as debacles. But they were at least credited with helping to ensure that America faced no repeat of the 9/11 attacks. The country has witnessed astonishingly little jihadist violence of any kind since 2001. And most of it has been small-scale and homegrown. Yet with the Taliban, resplendent in their new US Army uniforms, now in control of even more of Afghanistan than they had 20 years ago, America may again be vulnerable to attack. The remnants of Al Qaeda and Islamic State are still active in Afghanistan. No wonder many Americans question whether the 9/11 wars achieved anything at all.
The costs of the wars were astronomical. According to an analysis by Brown University, they claimed more than 900,000 lives—mostly Iraqi and Afghan. They cost around 15,000 American lives—and an estimated $8 trillion. That is a mind-bending sum. Imagine, as many Americans do, if it had instead been invested in decarbonising the US economy or building a national healthcare system? Imagine how much better America’s balance sheet would look, if those trillions had not been piled onto the national debt.
The socio-political cost of the wars has also been significant—though it is harder to quantify. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, most Americans pulled together in patriotic solidarity. Bush’s popularity soared; the Republican president’s approval ratings touched a staggering 92 per cent. Such unity these days is unimaginable. Recent presidents have been considered popular if they mustered the support of a bit over half the electorate. Donald Trump never managed that. Biden’s ratings, in the honeymoon period that followed his election, appear to have peaked at 55 per cent. Divided between the country’s warring Republicans and Democrats, and with little prospect of either winning a convincing electoral mandate, American public life has become a partisan battlefield. It is a political crisis, dating from the Civil Rights era, with deep roots and many causes. Yet the polarising effect of the 9/11 wars played a part.
Bush, the architect of the Iraq war, left office in 2008 as the most unpopular president in modern American history. And within his own party especially, the failure of his wars and his perceived bad faith in prosecuting them accelerated a pre-existing demise in public trust in leadership and expertise, which duly rolled the wicket for Trump.
During his campaign for the Republican nomination in 2016, the populist celebrity assured conservative voters that they had been betrayed by a self-interested, incompetent elite in their own party. He cited the Iraq war as prime evidence. He also turned the Islamophobia that the 9/11 attacks had fanned on the right into a serious political force.
Bush, for all his shortcomings, had tried to reduce it. He visited a mosque shortly after the terrorist attacks, called Islam a “religion of peace” and tried to reassure American Muslims—a well-educated, prosperous and moderate immigrant group—that they had nothing to fear. Yet the extent to which conservative talk-radio hosts such as Glenn Beck persisted in questioning their loyalties was an indication of the nativist drift Republicans were undergoing. And with the election of Obama, a Black president with a Muslim name, it became a nativist surge—in which Muslim-bashing and xenophobia were often hard to disentangle.
There is a suspicion that Biden, over-learning the lessons of Obama’s struggles, is trying to change foreign policy course more sharply than is necessary or wise
Share this on
When Trump launched himself into politics by claiming that Obama was a Muslim and a foreigner, he used the two terms almost synonymously. Muslim-bashing then became a major focus of his first presidential campaign. He falsely claimed that “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims had taken to the streets in celebration as the Twin Towers fell. He claimed that “Islam hates us”. After a jihadist attack in California in December 2015, he pledged, if elected, to bar Muslims from entering the country.
By the time of his election, the proportion of Republicans holding anti-Muslim views had doubled since 2002. Such views had become one of the most reliable markers of a Trump supporter. Again, the broader drift towards xenophobia that such Muslim-bashing exemplified would probably have happened anyway. It was fuelled on the right by longstanding trends, including the fading status and growing pessimism of America’s dwindling white majority. But the 9/11 attacks, wars and the global explosion of jihadist violence they gave rise to provided America’s pessimistic conservatives with yet another racial grievance, and thereby made a bad situation much worse.
IT IS NOT hard to see why Biden wants to make a break with the 9/11 era. It has been dire. In a series of speeches leading up to this week’s anniversary, he signalled the parameters of an alternative foreign policy—hailed by some as the “Biden doctrine”. Its principles include, if not an outright rejection of liberal intervention, then deep scepticism of it. “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan,” he said last month. “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
Some Europeans, dismayed by the disregard Biden showed for their long supporting role in Afghanistan, heard that as isolationism. There is little reason to think that. Biden is a lifelong internationalist and the country he leads remains the indispensable global power, responsible for about 10 per cent of global trade and with troops still scattered around the globe. But Biden is intent on wielding American power more selectively and strategically—which perhaps mostly means by prioritising China over the messy Middle East.
That was Obama’s plan, too. But his attempted “pivot to Asia” was stymied by the Afghan and Middle Eastern crises that kept sucking him back in. The ruthless—to the point of wilful—abruptness of Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan reflects his determination to avoid the same fate.
It is far too early to make predictions about his prospects for effecting this course correction. Biden’s ambitions seem coherent, unlike those of Trump, who appeared to have little conception of foreign policy beyond his enthusiasm for tariffs. Biden is probably also right in his conviction that the heavy criticism he has received, at home and abroad, over events in Kabul will blow over. American elections are almost never swayed by foreign policy, which voters take little interest in. And the Europeans, who are still grateful to Biden for replacing Trump, will get over their annoyance.
There are nonetheless a few reasons to doubt his promised strategy. Perhaps he will be proved right on Afghanistan; but if, on the contrary, another terrorist attack on America were launched from the country he could kiss pivoting to Asia goodbye.
There is also a suspicion that Biden, over-learning the lessons of Obama’s struggles, is trying to change foreign-policy course more sharply than is necessary or wise. Notwithstanding the failure of the Afghan war, for example, there was a case for America maintaining its small garrison there merely to keep tabs on China.
Similarly, Biden’s preoccupation with the Chinese has made him even keener on forging closer ties with India than his immediate predecessors were; and yet Afghanistan was until very recently a fine opportunity for Indo-US cooperation. It is also not quite apparent what Biden’s ambition to step up the pressure on China will amount to; or what it should amount to.
The two countries’ are too interdependent economically for either to want a major standoff. And their current shared priority is—or should be—to negotiate bilateral progress on curbing greenhouse-gas emissions ahead of the UN climate meeting in Glasgow in November. This does not feel like an especially good time, in other words, for either to antagonise the other.
Until the answers to such uncertainties emerge, treat claims of a major American foreign-policy reboot with caution. It is a welcome, but still untested, promise. And in the meantime, spare a thought for the mass murder unleashed in Manhattan 20 years ago, and for the violence and follies it unleashed around the world. The significance of the 9/11 era will be debated for centuries. Its wastefulness and devastation are cautionary and already clear.
James Astill is The Economist’s Asia editor, based in London. He was previously its Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist. He is the author of The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption, and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India. He is a contributor to Open
No Stereotypes Please Kaveree Bamzai
Alien Intelligence Makarand R Paranjape
Most Un-American Idol Kaveree Bamzai