Twenty years later, stunned by its mistakes, the United States is withdrawing so as to better redeploy itself later. To do so, it will need to heal the wounds of a deeply divided society.
When, on Sept. 11, 2001, two passenger planes struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the United States was at the height of its unipolar moment. Crowned by its victory in the Cold War, its economic prosperity and its technological supremacy following the digital revolution, America’s power seemed firmly planted on the peak of the world.
The attacks — which were carried out almost at the same time in New York and at the Pentagon in Washington by al-Qaida terrorists and killed almost 3,000 people, while a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania — changed the United States. Its reaction changed the world.
Hubris and Ignorance
Shaken by this aggression on their homeland, unseen since Pearl Harbor, and united in an immense patriotic fervor, Americans turned, almost blindly, to their leaders. Dissenting voices were inaudible. President George W. Bush, under the influence of neoconservative ideologues with messianic beliefs, launched a “global war on terror,” which was supposed to take his country, both militarily and politically, very far beyond simply destroying the organization responsible for the attacks.
Two goals were met: al-Qaida never again attacked the American homeland and its leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed in Pakistan by American commandos after a 10-year hunt. The rest is an accumulation of errors of judgment, state lies, poorly-planned operations in which hubris and ignorance sometimes went hand in hand. After brief, successful military offensives, like the strikes against the Taliban in 2001 or the march to Baghdad in 2003, came occupations that turned into fiascos and resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.
The operation in Afghanistan just ended piteously with the Taliban’s return. The one in Iraq, a decision based on the false pretense of weapons of mass destruction, sent the Middle East into chaos. The world still feels the consequences. George W. Bush and his administration are responsible for these decisions; they were nonetheless reelected in 2004.
A Dazed Boxer
Just as serious is the renunciation of the values of the rule of law considered the foundation of American democracy. Setting up an extrajudicial system to fight terrorism, resorting to lawless zones like the CIA’s secret prisons and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where 40 detainees are still being held — normalizing torture and renaming it “enhanced interrogation” — all of this will remain a black mark on the United States’ image. On the inside, this democracy, which gave birth to Donald Trump, has cracked. Spectacularly united in September 2001, American society is deeply divided today.
Bush’s America wanted to remake the world by force. Joe Biden’s wants to come home. Twenty years later, American power, weakened by its errors and challenged by new actors, is withdrawing in order to better redeploy itself. The United States’ unipolar moment has passed, but the country maintains its military, technological and financial preeminence. Like a dazed boxer who has taken too many hits but refuses to give up the fight, the United States is stepping out of the ring to regather its strength. One has to hope that it will analyze its mistakes of the last 20 years.