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2001 - 2021: How September 11 Changed the United States

2001 - 2021: How September 11 Changed the United States
 Maya Kandel
Historian, Associate Researcher at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 (CREW)

The September 11 attacks were traumatic for the United States. The political and military response to the attacks, guided by fear and hubris, laid the foundations for the neoconservative moment of US foreign policy. 9/11 also had significant domestic repercussions for US partisan politics and society at large. Maya Kandel, Head of the United States Program at Institut Montaigne, provides an overview of the last 20 years since the attacks.

US Foreign Policy: the rise and fall of neoconservatives

The September 11 attacks ushered in the neoconservative moment of American foreign policy. After a decade of strategic disarray following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, 9/11 gave the US an enemy again. Neoconservatives provided a doctrine and an objective for US foreign policy in the post-Cold War unipolar era: they were the only ones with a plan. This led to an unleashing of American military might on the world. US military efforts first aimed to punish the Taliban and dismantle Al-Qaeda strongholds throughout Afghanistan. A greater objective, however, was to take advantage of the unipolar moment to create a new world order. Neoconservative ideology, inspired by Samuel Huntington's "Third Wave" and democratic peace theory, endorses democratic transition, by force if need be, to fight regimes that sponsor terrorism and possess Weapons of Mass Destruction. George W. Bush infamously referred to these states as the "Axis of evil. The hubris of neoconservatives’ belief in nation-building and their misunderstanding of the world are all summed up by the following quote by Karl Rove, a Senior advisor to George Bush, in 2002: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality". Paradoxically, it was precisely the neoconservative vision and belief in US supremacy that precipitated the decline of the America-centric world order. 

Another paradox lay in the fact that during his 2000 presidential run, George W. Bush was considered an isolationist by many. Isolationists had been making significant advances into the Republican party. However, the 9/11 attacks pushed them to the sidelines. An alliance between two other foreign policy streams, neoconservative interventionists and nationalist "jacksonians", came to dominate the GOP’s foreign policy ideology. Huntington’s "Clash of Civilizations" thesis helps to understand how the Bush administration was able to rally these nationalists: on the evening of September 11, George Bush declared a "War on Terror". This term stuck, and it was used to justify congressional authorization for the use of force. The Bush administration took advantage of the nation’s profound state of shock to declare this vague war against no particular organization. The "War on Terror" was impossible to win, and by definition it would never end. Today, neoconservatives have been marginalized by the Republican party. Many have excluded themselves from the GOP. Donald Trump embodies this shift in Republican foreign policy, which is now based on a combination of anti-interventionism (more than isolationism) and pro-military patriotism. 

The twenty-year war in Afghanistan, which came to a dramatic end last month, highlights an American political system that seems increasingly unable to deliver a competent and coherent foreign policy. In this sense, US foreign policy failures reveal a greater crisis within American politics, which is all the more worrying as it reinforces Chinese (and Russian) narratives on the superiority of autocratic power over democratic regimes. 

Domestic politics: weaponizing polarization

The impact of the September 11 attacks on the American political party system is significant. The 1990s seemed to mark the peak of the American culture wars: the United States, despite emerging victorious from the Cold War, was crippled by internal strife over abortion, guns, and even the Clintons… The outcome of the 2000 presidential election was a reflection of the deep divide of the nation. The election was ultimately called by the Supreme Court after 36 days and the Senate was evenly split between both parties. 

The twenty-year war in Afghanistan [...] highlights an American political system that is becoming increasingly incompetent when it comes to US foreign policy strategy.

A brief period of unity followed the 9/11 attacks - for a few short weeks, George Bush’s approval ratings rose as high as 90% - but it was short-lived. The attacks amplified political polarization, which came to include foreign policy. Political opponents were being viewed as enemies and traitors. A few months after the attacks, Republican strategist Karl Rove recommended that the issue of national security be used against Democrats during the 2002 midterm elections. Republicans, arguing that civilization itself was under attack, reacted to all forms of foreign policy criticism from Democrats. This included questioning on the Patriot Act and the Abu Ghraib prison, or journalists revealing the CIA’s "black sites'' or its "enhanced interrogation techniques'', with accusations of treason.

Despite George Bush’s relative caution, Republican rhetoric was extremely vindictive. Politicians and pundits spoke of a religious war, a crusade against radical Islam. Any other formulation was seen as a sign of weakness. During this time, political violence was growing: first verbally, but soon physical as well. 

Increasing bipartisanship cannot be separated from the evolution of the media landscape. Fox News was founded in 1995 by Roger Ailes, a well connected and influential member of the Republican party. Over the past 25 years the network has seen its influence on the GOP grow exponentially. It is arguably more influential than the Republican National Committee, in the ideology of the party and even in the selection of candidates. In 2016, American political scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson published a book on the Tea Party where they attribute the power and influence of Fox News to the ideological vacuum that followed the rejection of Bush and the neoconservatives. They argue that Fox News’ political commentators by default have become a voice of reason among the Republican electorate. This key outlet, echoed by other conservative media outlets, helped reshape mainstream public debate. The rhetoric of star hosts Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson is fueled by conspiracy theories, an old phenomenon that was reinforced by 9/11. Because conspiracy theories boost TV ratings, these hosts tend to lean into them and help them grow. On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, Fox News hired Glenn Beck for a new show based on the notion that Obama’s election was "a betrayal of the founding fathers' vision", a stance that inspired the inception of the Tea Party. This corporate influence over the Republican party is one of the factors that made Trump’s election possible.

Society: from polarization to political violence

The two wars that followed the 9/11 attacks have had a significant impact on the US social climate, perceptions of national identity, and on America’s relationship with the world - especially immigration. The wars also led to the militarization of the police in the early 2000s, with important consequences for police violence in a tense social climate that worsened with Obama’s victory, the birth of the Tea Party and the election of Donald Trump. Finally, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also fueled domestic political violence. New militias were born, and their increasing size and influence led to the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021. Ultimately, the wars conducted by the United States these past two decades - the longest wars in American history - impacted the entire population. Millions of veterans returned to the United States either injured or traumatized. 

Yet the "light footprint" approach to counterterrorism employed since the Obama presidency had made the war invisible to most Americans, despite the fact that it was conducted in their name. Since the fall of Kabul on August 15, the situation in Afghanistan has spent more time in the spotlight than it had over the entire previous decade. That is even more than during the publication of the Afghanistan Papers, an investigation by the Washington Post that exposed the lies of military commanders and the utter lack of interest in the war from politicians in Congress and the White House. 

Political violence has been on a continuous rise over the last decade. In 2019, it surpassed record levels of 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing.

The new militias that appeared at the tail end of the 2000s grew in particular through the recruitment of combat veterans from the pool of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these veterans felt ignored by society and struggled to reintegrate. Many of them also fell victim to the devastating opioid epidemic. In 2011, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans thought the wars had been futile. In his speech following the departure of the last American troops from Afghanistan, President Biden noted the harrowing fact that 18 veterans took their lives every day. Fuelled by militias that swear by many conspiracy theories, political violence has been on a continuous rise over the last decade. In 2019, it surpassed record levels of 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing. In 2020, the FBI labeled domestic terrorism the first internal threat to the country. 

America’s next challenges

20 years have passed since the 9/11 attacks and the United States has become a far more nationalist country ("patriotic" according to the Democratic version). Although the US intends to face the challenges of the future head on - particularly concerning China - it must contend with the fact that its position in the world is now far less dominant.

The era of Wilsonian international liberalism is over. What remains is a vision of foreign policy dominated by economic and commercial concerns. The era of counter-insurrection and nation-building has also come to a close, but Obama-style counter-terrorism (the "light footprint", which was actually developed by Donald Rumsfeld) endures, albeit with a new name - "over the Horizon" .

The United States’ challenge now is twofold. On the international scene, the Biden administration must develop a strategy that addresses the complexity of the China issue, while getting US allies on board. On the domestic front, American society must find a path towards social harmony and peace. Both of these challenges are intimately linked, between them they embody the legacy of the September 11 attacks. 



Copyright: CHANG W. LEE / POOL / AFP

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