Historians and novelists love constructing “what if” scenarios: What if Hitler had won World War II? What if the Confederacy had prevailed in the Civil War? What if a Chinese sailor, rather than Columbus, had discovered America?
Such debates are a simple game, at worst. But at its best, counterfactual history helps us distinguish what is truly constant in our time from what is merely contingent, what is enduring from what is fleeting.
So, with that in mind: What if the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, had never happened? What if the plan to hijack airplanes and crash them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and possibly the Capitol had been called off or thwarted, or never even developed?
Of course, Osama bin Laden and his allies might have carried out another catastrophic and shocking attack. Absent such an event, however, U.S. efforts against al-Qaeda might have continued in their more limited pre-9/11 forms: some drone strikes against al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and Sudan, pressure on the Taliban to expel bin Laden, international intelligence and law enforcement cooperation. We’d never have known the “war on terror” as an organizing principle of an entire presidential administration.
And Osama bin Laden would never have become a household name.
Without the catalyst of the attacks, Congress would not have undertaken the greatest reorganization of the national security bureaucracy since the Truman years, stitching together the Department of Homeland Security from nearly two dozen agencies. Airline travel would still have its annoyances, but massively intrusive security screening might not be one of them.
American foreign policy would be strikingly different and almost certainly less bellicose. In the early months of the Bush administration, U.S.-Chinese tensions were high, and many American neoconservatives were focused on the rise of China as a military “peer competitor.” If the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had never come under attack, U.S. defense policy probably would have concentrated more on the Pacific than on the Middle East. A direct confrontation with China would have been unlikely, but without a distracting war on terror, Washington would have focused much more on China’s military buildup, its deals with anti-American regimes, and cyber-attacks by Chinese hackers against the United States and its allies.
No Sept. 11 means no invasion of Afghanistan, and possibly no invasion of Iraq. At most, we might have seen covert actions and more cruise missile attacks, such as those the Clinton administration launched in 1998, against countries harboring bin Laden and his allies. And terms such as “IED” (improvised explosive device) and “TBI” (traumatic brain injury) would not have become the defining reality for a generation of American troops.