Nineteen years later, the scourge of extremism has hardly abated, and American troops and treasure are still being drained into overseas quagmires. Countless civilians have seen their lives, homes and societies upended in a cascading series of political disasters, from the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the upheavals of the Arab Spring to unresolved, entrenched conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan.
But in many ways, 9/11 — and the epochal conflagration that followed — feels distant. In the West, the past decade opened and closed with traumatic economic shocks and recessions. The prevailing view of globalization as an inexorable, benign force dissolved into a seething cauldron of nationalism and populism. Washington’s political elites have grown desperate to be rid of their travails in the Middle East and pivot instead to face the strategic challenge of China.
Moreover, both the recent experience of the coronavirus pandemic and the lurking, omnipresent menace of climate change are reshaping how governments everywhere set national security priorities and agendas. “As COVID-19 has transformed the way that Americans live, and threatens to claim exponentially more lives than any terrorist has, it is time to finally end the chapter of our history that began on September 11, 2001,” wrote Ben Rhodes, a national security official in the Obama administration, in an essay earlier this year.
In Washington’s foreign policy establishment, the 9/11 era is becoming synonymous with a narrative of U.S. decline. “Provoked by the attacks of 9/11 and further encouraged by the rapid fall of the Taliban and dispersal of Al Qaeda, American leaders launched a global war on terror, embraced a policy of military preemption to deal with nuclear proliferators, invaded Iraq, and declared the intention of turning that country into a democratic model for the rest of the Middle East,” noted a recent policy report by the RAND Corporation that examined the waning of U.S. global influence. “These multiple missions strained the capacity of the United States. None was completed satisfactorily.”
But there’s no clean break from a legacy of overreach, as President Trump himself has found. Myriad U.S. experts counsel what is essentially a strategy of muddling along in the Middle East, wary both of ramping up involvement in the region or withdrawing unilaterally.
“The main risk in retrenchment lies in taking it too far or too fast. Any effort to disentangle the United States from the world comes with complicated downsides,” wrote William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a veteran former U.S. diplomat. “Former president Barack Obama’s attempt to shift the terms of U.S. engagement in the Middle East offers an important caution. His thoughtful long game met the unsynchronized passions of the region’s short game, creating significant dislocations and doubts about American power.”
That sort of dim view of the Middle East is becoming widespread in Washington. “The situation in a variety of countries seems so dire that it is hard not to imagine that additional and significant ruptures are in the offing,” wrote Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, in Foreign Policy. “Struggles over identity, sovereignty, legitimacy, and individual as well as communal rights are entangled in ways that are remaking the region. Among a number of imaginable outcomes, further deterioration, violence, and authoritarianism seem most likely.”
It amounts to a headache that many U.S. policymakers no longer want to tolerate. Critics on the left also point to the flimsiness of the ideological clash that came with 9/11. “Though anxieties about Islam permeated U.S. culture in the 2000s, by the 2010s it became clear that this most recent threat du jour didn’t have the staying power of the Soviet Union — the ‘jihadists’ just weren’t powerful enough to truly threaten the United States,” wrote Daniel Bessner, a historian at the University of Washington. “It’s partially for this reason that we’re now witnessing attempts to stoke a ‘New Cold War’ with China, which, if initiated, would provide the foreign policy establishment with the logic it needs to justify the ever-increasing expenditures that undergird the American Empire.”
But even if we’ve entered into a new chapter of history, as Rhodes put it, the previous one isn’t quite finished — certainly not for those living in the countries affected by the U.S.-led “war on terror.” A study published this week by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University “conservatively” estimated that at least 37 million people have been displaced by wars linked to the U.S. response after 9/11.
One can quibble over the direct causality behind some of these displacements. The United States was hardly the prime political actor in the violence that forced millions of people from their homes in countries like Syria, Somalia and the Philippines. But the chaos of these conflicts is still part of the tragedy of the 9/11 era.
“This has been one of the major forms of damage, of course along with the deaths and injuries, that have been caused by these wars,” said David Vine, a professor of anthropology at American University and the lead author of the report, to the New York Times. “It tells us that U.S. involvement in these countries has been horrifically catastrophic, horrifically damaging in ways that I don’t think that most people in the United States, in many ways myself included, have grappled with or reckoned with in even the slightest terms.”