Fifteen years ago, America took a punishing blow to the jaw, a strike aimed at its business, military and political centers of power. It was both a military and psychological blow, but above all it was a financial one.
The quality of American response was mixed. President Bush promised that anyone who wasn’t with us was against us, and crushed the Taliban. But then he depended on Afghans to fight and on Pakistanis to guard the Afghan border east of Tora Bora, and despite the deployment of massive firepower, Bin Laden escaped.
In 2003, the US invaded Iraq , which had no connection with 9/11, and managed the aftermath of Saddam’s quick defeat so badly that his deadly enemy, Iran – which was implicated in the attack – was enabled to ultimately gain control of much of that country. Elements in Saudi Arabia, including members of the royal family that were involved, also got off scot-free.
The US financial industry recovered from the destruction almost in its epicenter, although a minor recession occurred afterwards (the Big One hit in 2008, unrelated to 9/11). The Pentagon was repaired and the WTC was finally rebuilt.
Americans were angry and united immediately after the attacks. They wanted to use their massive military power to crush the terrorists and teach them a lesson that would end Islamic terrorism for 400 years, if not forever. But that didn’t happen. Instead, a massive quantity of human and financial resources were wasted in Iraq. The “spirit of 9/12” soon dissipated and political and business leaders became even more self-serving and corrupt than before.
President Bush took the line that the terrorists had “hijacked Islam” and tried to “build bridges” to American Muslims, who almost immediately began to make demands and complained about “islamophobia,” although there were remarkably few actual incidents of anti-Muslim prejudice. The groups chosen to represent Muslim opinion tended to be sympathetic with the goals, if not the methods, of radical Islamists.
But if Bush did not succeed in confronting the Islamic challenge to the West, Obama tried to make allies of the hostile Muslim world. For Obama there was no Islamic jihad against the West, only a few “extremists.” If Bush invaded the wrong country, Obama took the wrong side in the war.
Raised as a Muslim, Obama may not practice the faith today but he is so sympathetic to Islam and Muslims that it doesn’t matter. One of his first acts as president was to go to Cairo where he gave a speech promising to drastically change course after the confrontations since 2001. He made the well-known (and absurd) statement that “Islam has always been a part of America’s story,” promised to remove all US troops from Iraq by 2012 (thus giving the go-ahead to Iran and the forces that would become Da’esh), and equated Palestinian suffering “in pursuit of a homeland” to the Jewish Holocaust. He helped precipitate the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and he supported (and still supports) the jihadist Muslim Brotherhood against the pro-Western Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
In the US, he decreed that it is forbidden to mention “Islamic terrorism” or to use the word “jihad” to describe it. He moved the American position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict closer to that of the Arabs, rejecting the Bush-Sharon understandings that construction in settlement blocs was acceptable and that a Palestinian right of return was off the table. He pushed Israel hard on settlement freezes and prisoner releases. During the 2014 war with Hamas, his administration called for Hamas allies Turkey and Qatar to be cease-fire mediators, cut off supplies to Israel of critical weapons, and even had the FAA embargo flights to Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport after one Hamas rocket landed in a nearby town.
But Obama’s signature foreign-policy “achievement” has been the nuclear deal with Iran, which not only guarantees Iran the right to produce nuclear weapons after its expiration, but has inadequate safeguards to prevent cheating that will allow the regime to go nuclear even sooner. If that wasn’t enough, it turns out that there are side agreements that loosen the already loose restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities.
The administration has also taken the position that the UN Security Council resolution intended to limit Iran’s ballistic missile development is not binding, after supporting the cancellation of tougher resolutions as part of the deal. And finally, it has recently been revealed that the Obama Administration may have transferred as much as $33.6 billion in cash, on pallets to the Iranian regime.
Iran, which is the greatest supporter of terrorism today by virtue of its sponsorship of Hezbollah and other terror organizations, which has kept the Assad regime in business to the tune of half a million casualties and millions of refugees, now has the means to pay for almost unlimited terror attacks, worldwide. The 9/11 attacks only cost al-Qaeda about $500,000. Imagine what terrorists can do – will do – with $33.6 billion.
The 9/11 attacks were a great success. One estimate put the cost to the US at $3.3 trillion (a trillion is 1000 billion, 1×1012), including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if the Iraq war ($860 billion, including veterans’ benefits) is subtracted, it is still a remarkable return on investment: each dollar invested by al-Qaeda cost America $4.8 million. America is still suffering the crippling effects of this blow.
The money had to come from somewhere. It came from the government, whose domestic programs and military preparedness have both been seriously impacted, but it also came directly from the pockets of businesses and individuals. Much greater suffering may be yet to come if the massive government debts that were incurred are made to evaporate by printing money.
It’s hard to distinguish the causes of the negative social and psychological trends that followed the attacks. Some may have no connection to it, but others clearly hark back to it. One is what could be called the 9/11 guilt complex: the feeling that “such a horrible thing would not have been done to us if we hadn’t deserved it.”
Bin Laden made much of the guilt of the US for “colonialism” (although Western colonialism in the Arab world was short-lived and mostly perpetrated by the French and British), as well as for its support for Israel. In America, the remark that 9/11 was payback for the nation’s “crimes” was sometimes heard, and indeed Barack Obama hinted on several occasions that Americans are as responsible for terrorist mass murders as the terrorists who pulled the triggers. Of course, after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Muslim world has an almost unlimited supply of grievances against the US to “pay back.”
There is also the frustration that Americans feel because they know that although Bin Laden himself was finally killed, the forces that he represented are stronger than ever. They feel the humiliation and the weakness of their country. American sailors are captured and mistreated, and instead of punishing the Iranians, their government meekly apologizes. It pays ransom for hostages. A jihadist murders 49 in a nightclub and their president lectures them on gun control and tolerance for LGBT people. The enemy is primitive and contemptible, and yet for some reason their leaders can’t or won’t confront it. They feel like animals waiting to be slaughtered by the next terrorist outrage, and they don’t like the feeling. Perhaps this is behind some of the conspiracy theories about 9/11 that are so popular.
It seems to me that the US has gone rapidly downhill, economically, socially and politically, since 2001. 9/11 was a historical inflection point, a watershed moment, a date that will certainly be in future history books. Osama Bin Laden didn’t end the Age of America by knocking down a couple of buildings and making a hole in a third, and even by killing almost 3000 innocents and heroic first responders – there is no way he could have done that. But his blow destabilized an already wobbly nation. And the Islamic jihad, as embodied by the soon-to-be-nuclear Iran and the less-confrontational but equally patient Muslim Brotherhood, is waiting for its chance to step in and deliver an even worse blow.
The US has historically had the ability to make big mistakes and its large area, relative isolation and plentiful natural resources gave it the resilience to recover. I suspect that now it has less leeway, less ‘strategic depth’ in the broadest sense, than ever before. America now needs leadership that will not make any more big mistakes, will understand the threat, and will enunciate an ideology that will inspire its people to pull together in a way that they are not accustomed to doing. He or she will have to restore national pride in its citizens as well as respect and deterrence among the nations.
If America goes down, so does that thing called Western civilization. Unfortunately, the American political system has failed: there is no such leader anywhere near the horizon. America needs a Winston Churchill, but at least in this coming election, it isn’t even going to get a Warren Harding.