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Most people over the age of 30 probably have some vivid mental image of 11 September 2001, when fanatical Islamic terrorists crashed two planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and another into the Pentagon in Washington DC. A fourth hijacked plane was forced down by courageous passengers en route to either the Capitol or the White House. For me, the most memorable image is of US president George W Bush sitting with a class of schoolkids, aged six and seven, in Florida, listening while they read My Pet Goat. Bush’s face is frozen at the moment when an aide whispers in his ear that the second plane had crashed into the other tower: “Mr President, America is under attack.”

The president’s shocked visage testifies to a man who suddenly knew that the buck did indeed “stop here”. It also personifies a whole nation suddenly forced to rethink its raison d’être. Twenty years on, Americans remain scarred by 9/11. And it undoubtedly transformed air travel and security. But was 9/11 a turning point in world history, as has often been argued? Is a dramatic image always a good guide to lasting impact?

A photograph of the moment when George W Bush is informed of the attacks on the World Trade Center
George W Bush is informed of the attacks on the World Trade Center. For David Reynolds, this is the most memorable image of 9/11. (Image by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)

To grasp the immediate shock of 9/11, let’s rewind to those heady days a decade before, when the Soviet empire in eastern Europe collapsed in 1989 and then the USSR itself fell apart in December 1991. Pundit Francis Fukuyama summed up the American mood extravagantly: we had, he argued, reached “the end of history”, meaning that we had reached what he regarded as the end point of humanity’s ideological evolution, and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Another slogan of the time came from commentator Charles Krauthammer. Cold War bipolarity had gone, he said. “Now is the unipolar moment... The centre of the world is the unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its western allies.” In time, he admitted, “in perhaps another generation or so there will be great powers coequal with the United States”, but “we are not there yet, nor will we be for decades”.

A third catchphrase – “a new world order” – was uttered by President George HW Bush during his triumphant campaign to drive Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in February 1991. Bush crafted a remarkable diplomatic coalition of nearly 40 countries – including old foes such as Mos-cow and prickly allies such as France – all acting under UN authority. Ground combat operations lasted only a hundred hours, after a display of GPS-directed “technowar” that showed why the US was indeed the top military superpower. Yet Bush was careful not to stretch his unlikely coalition too far, resisting calls to push on from Kuwait further into Iraq and topple Saddam. Instead, reusing a phrase coined by former US president Woodrow Wilson, he declared: “We have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order – a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations.”

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Yet the 1990s belied these high hopes. A decade of brutal fighting across former Yugoslavia, during which perhaps 140,000 people were killed and 4 million displaced, showed that the new world order would not fall smoothly into place. Spasms of ethnic cleansing on all sides spiralled into crimes of genocide by Serbian forces in Bosnia. As for the sole superpower, Bush’s Democrat successor, Bill Clinton, learnt the limits of American might when his “surgical operation” to clean up warlord-run Somalia in October 1993 ended with the desecrated corpses of US soldiers being dragged through the streets of the capital Mogadishu, to the horror of TV viewers across the US. Clinton’s rapid withdrawal of American forces encouraged Islamist militants to see the US as a hollow giant. Among them was a man called Osama Bin Laden.

It was therefore a wary America that entered the new millennium under George W Bush, the son of Clinton’s predecessor. “Dubya”, as he was known in the family, seemed out of his depth in the early months after his inauguration in January 2001. His main foreign policy focus was relations with China, and he showed no enthusiasm for military intervention or for “nation building”. Before the election, Bush had said he felt America needed to “convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations”. He also promised to be “judicious as to how to use the military. It needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear... the exit strategy obvious.”

Of course, nothing could have prepared any president for Tuesday, 11 September 2001. The nearest equivalent was Japan’s attack on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, when 2,403 people were killed. But that took place 5,000 miles from New York and Washington DC, and the ensuing war from 1941 to 1945 left the continental United States itself virtually unscarred, where only one woman and five children died from enemy action. In 2001, by contrast, Bush was facing an assault of unknown dimensions on the nerve centres of America’s finance and government, mounted not by a military taskforce but a motley assortment of 19 hijackers who had turned four commercial airliners into guided missiles. The official death toll was 2,996.

The nearest equivalent to 9/11 was Japan’s surprise attack on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941

The new president struggled to find his touch. But a visit to the smoking ruins of Manhattan’s Twin Towers on the Friday left an indelible impression. The destruction was far worse than Bush had imagined or seen on TV, and he was also struck by the thirst for revenge among the crowd of rescue workers, who kept chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A”. It was, said Bush, like being in “some ancient arena”.

It soon became clear that the attacks had been conducted by al-Qaeda – a collection of radical Islamic fundamentalist cells headed by Osama bin Laden. It was also apparent that al-Qaeda was being sheltered by the fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan, ironically rooted in freedom fighters backed by the US in the 1980s against the country’s Soviet client government. On 20 September, Bush addressed a Joint Session of Congress. “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he said. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

The phrase “war on terror” was deliberately open-ended. A war, not merely a campaign, and waged not against specific terrorist groups but against terror itself, because this threatened everything that America stood for. “They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” Bush declared, also insisting that “this is the world’s fight. This is civilisation’s fight.” The purveyors of terror, he declared, “follow in the path of fascism and Nazism and totalitarianism”.

Not only had Bush found his voice; America had found a new enemy, a new existential threat against which to redefine itself after the demise of the Soviet “Evil Empire”.

America had found a new existential threat against which to define itself after the demise of the Soviet 'evil empire'

Yet passion has its perils in politics and in diplomacy. Bush’s “war on terror” dominated the rest of his two-term presidency, with costly and inconclusive campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. These also diverted his successors, Barack Obama (2009–17) and Donald Trump (2017– 21). Meanwhile, the dynamics of the post-Cold War world were changing, and America was slow to react.

At first Afghanistan seemed straightforward. This was a campaign to get Bin Laden. The Taliban would not give him up. So they had to be overthrown, and that was duly done by the end of 2001. But the US soon discovered the lesson that many outsiders had painfully learnt before (not least Britain and Russia in the 19th century) – that stabilising Afghanistan was an almost impossible task. The client governments established by Washington lacked roots and credibility, and the Taliban regrouped as a skilful, brutal insurgency – mounting guerrilla raids, mass shootings and suicide bombings that wrested control of large areas from the Americans and their Nato allies.

Obama finally gained the prize that had eluded Bush: the death, in May 2011, of Osama bin Laden, tracked down to a secret compound in Pakistan. But neither that, nor a huge troop surge during 2009–11, ended the fighting in Afghanistan.

A picture of Osama bin Laden
The killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 gave Barack Obama a much-needed PR victory but blood continued to be spilled across Afghanistan. (Photo by Stephane Ruet/Sygma via Getty Images)

As Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had done in Vietnam, Obama and Trump tried to extricate the US from the quagmire while saving face. By the end of 2018, Trump’s negotiators were talking to the Taliban, and on 13 April 2021 his successor, Joe Biden, announced that remaining US troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021 – the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In fact, the troops were out by early July, and the Taliban were soon regaining their grip on the country.

Iraq was even more tragic. Prime movers in the story were the neoconservatives, disenchanted by the failure of the elder Bush to finish off Saddam in 1991. The Iraqi dictator had used chemical weapons on Iran and on his own people; it was also widely believed that he was working to develop nuclear weapons. So, after 9/11, the neocons seized their chance. Diplomat Paul Wolfowitz caught the president’s ear with his assertion that Iraq must have been behind the attacks. There were also calls to democratise the whole Middle East on American lines. Another neocon, Richard Perle, claimed that there existed “a potential civic culture in Arab countries that can lead to democratic institutions, and I think Iraq is probably the best place to put that proposition to the test because it’s a sophisticated, educated population that has suffered horribly under totalitarian rule”.

To bolster the administration’s case, leading politicians simplified and exaggerated fragmentary and ambiguous evidence about Iraqi arms programmes. “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” Vice-President Dick Cheney told veterans in August 2002. “There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” Cheney scoffed away fears that the US was going to get mired in Iraq as it had Vietnam: “It’ll be like the American army going through the streets of Paris [in 1944]... The people will be so happy with their freedoms that we’ll probably back ourselves out of there within a month or so.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell did manage to persuade Bush to work through the United Nations. But although Powell slowed the rush to war, he could not stop it. Finally losing patience with the UN, the United States invaded Iraq on 20 March 2003. Britain’s support, pledged by Prime Minister Tony Blair, was useful militarily and diplomatically, providing a fig-leaf for naked American power. Baghdad fell in less than three weeks and, on 1 May, Bush landed dramatically on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln (off the California coast) to declare: “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” He thanked the US armed forces: “Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free.” Behind the president a large banner proclaimed “Mission Accomplished”.

This PR stunt proved one of the biggest gaffes of the Bush presidency. Up to that date, 139 Americans had died in Iraq; by the end of 2006, the US death toll of 3,000 exceeded that of 9/11. Because postwar planning had been neglected, the fall of Saddam’s regime created a power vacuum filled by warring insurgent groups the US could not control. Without police and security services, the country slid into anarchy. As images of looting filled TV screens, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blustered: “Stuff happens. It is untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”

It didn’t. “Stuff” continued to happen, no weapons of mass destruction were found, and Americans became disenchanted with a war apparently foisted on them by the neo-conmen. Obama eventually managed to pull out the last US troops in December 2011, but sent them back in 2014 because, amid continuing anarchy in Iraq, control was shifting towards the Islamic State – a fundamentalist offshoot of al-Qaeda using genocidal terror to wage a “holy war” against the west. This renewed struggle in Iraq merged with the brutal civil war in Syria and the chaos across the whole Middle East after the 2011 “Arab Spring” had turned sour. It took until 2017 to drive Islamic State out of the terrain it once controlled in Iraq, but insurgent operations have continued and the Iraqi government remains reliant on US and Nato forces. In 2021, a full American troop withdrawal from Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, is still not in sight.

While the US has spent two decades wrestling with the legacies of 9/11, the world has not stood still

Afghanistan and Iraq consumed the administration of George W Bush, and preoccupied both his successors. Yet, while the US spent two decades wrestling with the legacies of 9/11, the world did not stand still. During that time, 1990s talk about unipolarity sounded increasingly hollow. One reason was renewed friction with with the Kremlin in the 2010s. But Russia posed only a limited economic and military challenge to America. The big issue was China.

China’s exit from the Cold War in 1989 developed very differently from that of the USSR. Mikhail Gorbachev had neither the desire nor the capacity to hold the Soviet empire together by force. In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), however, communist leaders stamped brutally on pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989. In further contrast to Gorbachev, the PRC ensured that the process of economic liberalisation was gradual and also firmly under state control. In any case, China was a more populous country than Russia, with a strong entrepreneurial tradition. For all these reasons, its managed transition from Maoist communism posed a far greater challenge to Washington.

George W Bush had recognised this in the early months of his presidency, but 9/11 transformed his priorities. A decade later, Obama briefly tried to grasp the China nettle. In November 2011, with Afghanistan and Iraq both apparently winding down, he announced that his administration was going to focus on Asia and the Pacific because America was “and always will be, a Pacific nation” and because the Asia-Pacific was “the world’s fastest growing region, and home to more than half the global economy”.

But Obama’s “pivot to the Pacific” was short-lived, thanks to Putin and the deadly legacies of the Arab Spring. Donald Trump did engage more directly with China, but his policy veered between confrontational rhetoric and frantic efforts to secure a showcase trade deal. By this time Xi Jinping – China’s ruler since 2012 – had made himself leader for life. Xi’s ruthless grip over the PRC stood in stark contrast to the polarised society and fractured politics that faced Joe Biden when he succeeded Trump in January 2021. Xi, like Putin, is determined to challenge American “unipolarity” in order to create a “post-west world order”. Biden sees China as the pre-eminent test for his foreign policy.

So how will 9/11 be regarded at the 50th anniversary in 2051? Will it be seen as having led America, fatally, to ignore the resurgence of China? Or as exacerbating the toxic cocktail of the Middle East, with its unresolved problems going back to the fall of the Ottoman empire in 1918? Perhaps, by 2051, 9/11 will seem far less important than Covid 19 – the onset of an era of zoonotic diseases, passing from animals to humans, which affected daily life across the world much more profoundly? Or maybe, by mid-century, the climate emergency will dwarf all other issues, and our grandchildren will point to a crucial tipping point in climate change that this generation failed to address. I’d put my money on climate, not Covid or China, but I don’t expect to be around to find out!

The challenge of doing contemporary history is that perspectives are bound to change over time – and that dramatic events, captured on global TV and social media, are not always the most significant in the long run. Of one thing we can be certain: to borrow that immortal phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, “stuff” will keep happening. And a historical perspective on events is absolutely vital.
David Reynolds is emeritus professor of international history at Cambridge University. His books include America: Empire of Liberty (updated edition, Basic Books, 2021)


This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine