September 11: The day the American decline began

By Rupert Cornwell

US reaction to 9/11 damaged its economy and reputation, writes Rupert Cornwell

Ten years. An eyeblink in the eternal march of history - yet sufficient distance to gauge the impact of America's most dreadful day, one that no one old enough to remember will ever forget. After 10 years, winners and losers can be declared. And in the case of 9/11, it becomes more evident, both sides are losers.

The most obvious one is Osama bin Laden. The organisation he founded has been not only decapitated, but decimated. Top al-Qaeda commanders are being killed and captured, their security presumably compromised by the documents seized during the raid in which Bin Laden was killed. Touch wood, there seems scant chance of the spectacular 10th anniversary attack for which, those documents show, he was trying to organise.

As for his notion that violent Islamic jihad might create a new caliphate stretching from Indonesia to Spain - that seems even more far-fetched than it did 10 years ago. Even the "Arab Spring" of uprisings against the secular Middle Eastern dictators that Bin Laden hated is no vindication of his ideology.

But what about the ledger on the other side. Yes, America's leaders can claim, contrary to every prediction at the time, there has been no terrorist attack on the United States mainland since.

And yes, the particular group that carried out the attacks on New York and Washington DC has been largely destroyed. But it took the mightiest military on Earth almost 10 years to track down and eliminate its most wanted single target, while the terrorist movement for which he was the inspiration has become a Hydra. Chop off one head in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Yemen and others start to grow elsewhere. And in almost every other sense, these past 10 years have been a tale of mistakes made, opportunities missed and lessons not learned.

Consider first the opportunities missed. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US enjoyed an outpouring of global support and sympathy unmatched since World War II. "We Are All Americans Now," proclaimed that headline in French newspaper Le Monde, speaking on behalf of the European country that has more hang-ups about America than most.

Within a couple of years, however, that sympathy had been utterly squandered. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were Ugly Americans reborn, loathed across the Arab world and beyond. Barack Obama has repaired much of the damage among traditional US allies. But in Islamic countries, America's reputation remains in tatters, despite its deliberately low profile in the campaign to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

And America remains bogged down in two wars in Islamic countries, as a result of 9/11. The October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan to remove the Taleban government that not only sheltered al-Qaeda but was literally of a piece with it, was absolutely justifiable - although Bin Laden and his cohorts should have been eliminated within months at Tora Bora.

But why did everything take so much longer than it should have? The answer lies in that other mistake of the Bush Administration, arguably the biggest single foreign policy blunder in all US history: the war of choice against Iraq has succeeded only in strengthening the position of America's arch enemy Iran across the entire region.

Iraq and Afghanistan may end up costing US$4 trillion between them, an outlay covered thus far not by raising taxes as most wars are covered, but by borrowing. To that extent, 9/11 has contributed to the current economic crisis, helping create the mountain of debt that now ties Obama's hands.

Afghanistan has also provided its own grim 10th anniversary of the 2001 attacks: August 2011 was the deadliest month ever for US forces deployed there.

Contributing to the two longest wars in the country's history were two more pervasive errors. The first was the "Global War on Terror" itself. At the time, the Bush Administration's decision to treat 9/11 as an act of war seemed to make sense.

But declaration of the war on terror was the slippery slope that led to so much that proved disastrous to America's reputation: torture, Abu Ghraib, rendition, Guantanamo Bay, the denial of basic defendants' rights to captured "enemy combatants" (many of whom, it belatedly transpired, were innocent). How much better to have treated the attacks as a criminal matter, monstrous to be sure, but which could have been handled by civilian courts.

But the US strategy refused to face up to a basic dilemma - that some of its main allies in the "War on Terror" were in fact accomplices or even instigators of that terrorism. One of them, Pakistan, sheltered Bin Laden. Another, Saudi Arabia, provided 15 of the 19 hijackers.

September 11, 2001, was a chance for Bush to reduce the US addiction for imported oil, which distorts American policy in the Middle East, and boost alternative sources of energy. But next to nothing was done.

The world was told, you are either with us or against. For the 99 per cent of the population not involved with the armed forces, Bush's rallying cry was: "Keep on driving, keep on spending."

The real world, however, moved on. Amid Washington's obsession with terror, China has stepped up its economic challenge. And here we are 10 years on, amid a gathering economic crisis far more obvious than the clues back then to an impending terrorist attack, watching in disbelief as the two American political parties squabble endlessly over trivialities.

It was not 9/11 that caused the American decline. But it's a good marker of when that decline began.

- Independent

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