The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is harming the dream of America more than any foreign adversary ever could

A man stands in the rubble, and calls out asking if anyone needs help, after the collapse of the first World Trade Center Tower in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. (Doug Kanter/AFP/Getty Images)

Cataclysmic events often bring with them violent and abrupt endings to settled ages and long-established norms. Those absorbing the impact of these historical aftershocks rarely grasp the epochal changes in real time.

Who could have imagined during their commute home on the night of Nov. 21, 1963, that an event in Dallas the next day would shake the postwar order guaranteed by America’s victory in World War II? Even after Lee Harvey Oswald’s shots rang out from the Texas School Book Depository, could anyone have foreseen the collapse of such an ordered age soon overtaken by the anarchy of Vietnam, the murders of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the race riots, Chicago, Kent State, Watergate, postindustrial rot and the cultural chaos set loose across the country by these events?

And could even the most insightful observer have foreseen — while staring at the billowing smoke set against New York’s brilliant September sky — the avalanche of strategic blunders set in motion by Osama bin Laden’s attack on the United States?

Of course not. But two wars, three presidents and 17 years later, the tragic lessons of that time are still lost on our leaders.

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On Sept. 10, 2001, the United States dominated the world stage in a way no other country had since the height of the Roman and British empires. NATO’s long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union ended with Russia in ruins. The Japanese economic miracle, predicted by some to turn America into little more than a granary for Japan, had flatlined. And a rising China was still struggling with a multitude of internal security concerns and was eclipsed on the world stage by the Pax Americana. The United States deployed a dazzling display of both soft- and hard-power assets across the globe.

On the eve of bin Laden’s attacks, America’s gross domestic product was nearly 10 times China’s and 40 times Russia’s. The U.S. military machine was unparalleled, with the Pentagon spending more on national defense than the next 15 countries combined. And despite those staggering outlays, Washington was running a $125 billion surplus.

Lauren Manning, who worked for the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald, spoke about life after surviving the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Seventeen years later, endless wars abroad and reckless policies at home have produced annual deficits approaching $1 trillion. President Trump’s Republican Party will create more debt in one year than was generated in the first 200 years of America’s existence. And while the United States has been mired in endless wars and bloody occupations over the past 17 years, China has used that same period to aggressively develop economic partnerships across Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa. Perhaps that is one reason China will soon overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy.

Any discussion of policy failures since 2001 must begin with George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq even though no evidence linked Saddam Hussein’s regime to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Even a majority of Senate Democrats voted for a resolution supporting the Iraq invasion, and more than 70 percent of Americans agreed. But we were wrong. That war cost nearly 5,000 American lives, $2 trillion and inestimable damage to America’s credibility across the globe.

The excesses of Bush’s military adventurism led to his successor, President Barack Obama, placing the United States in a defensive crouch for the better part of eight years. The commander in chief defined his foreign policy approach this way: “Don’t do stupid [stuff].” Even Democratic foreign policy experts would quietly complain that their president’s strategic retreat from the world would come at great cost. The ignoring of crossed red lines, the rise of the Islamic State and the deaths of 500,000 Syrians proved Obama’s Democratic critics right.

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Sixteen years of strategic missteps have been followed by the maniacal moves of a man who has savaged America’s vital alliances, provided comfort to hostile foreign powers, attacked our intelligence and military communities, and lent a sympathetic ear to neo-Nazis and white supremacists across the globe.

For those of us still believing that Islamic extremists hate America because of the freedoms we guarantee to all people, the gravest threat Trump poses to our national security is the damage done daily to America’s image. As the New York Times’s Roger Cohen wrote the month after Trump’s election, “America is an idea. Strip freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law from what the United States represents to the world and America itself is gutted.”

Osama bin Laden was killed by SEAL Team 6 before he accomplished that goal. Other tyrants who tried to do the same were consigned to the ash heap of history. The question for voters this fall is whether their country will move beyond this troubled chapter in history or whether they will continue supporting a politician who has done more damage to the dream of America than any foreign adversary ever could.

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Richard Cohen: Trump is going to learn a very painful lesson