A decade after 9/11, where have we been, where are we now, and where are we going?
Where have we been?
There was ample discussion of the failures of the 'war on drugs' and the 'war on poverty', yet we embarked on the 'war on terror'. After 9/11, who could be against a war on terror? Right or wrong, the 'war on terror' was a phrase used to marshal support around a military strategy to fight Al Qaeda. Anyone who opposed the war on terror methods was dubbed a sympathizer or not serious about terrorism.
After 9/11, President Bush's approval rating was in the stratosphere. The nation was united and we enjoyed a wave of popular global support for the initial response to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But support quickly eviscerated and turned into resentment when we invaded Iraq.
Iraq became the response to 9/11.
What was supposed to uncover WMDs uncovered either deceit or incompetence in the White House. As we were bogged down in Iraq, Iran and North Korea advanced their nuclear programs, our debt ballooned, civil liberties eroded, and our global popularity plummeted.
Where are we now?
President Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo bumped up the approval rating among Muslims of America for a short while but Obama's policies have not proven to the Muslim world to be too much different than Bush's as measured in recent Pew opinion polls -- Guantánamo Bay is still open, US troops still occupy two Muslim countries, and another Muslim country (Iran) is under sanctions. Even with Osama bin Laden dead, the threat of terrorism has not subsided; Osama's example and inspiration live on in the minds of many.
The US still suffers from the botched response to 9/11 that is Iraq. The invasion damaged America's standing in the world, strained our economic security, undermined our political capital, and has resulted in a less secure world in that North Korea is a nuclear power and Iran is soon to become one. Also, because of Iraq the United States has more individual enemies around the world today than it did in September of 2001, and we have less support for military adventures and less political capital than we have ever had in modern history.
Republicans now distance themselves from the spending and policies under Bush. Many Bush Administration members are left disgraced with the magnitude of an error that was the war in Iraq. Republicans like to say that they "lost their way" under Bush, or blame all the debt on Obama; neither is true. But when Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul said in a recent debate in Iowa that we can't afford these costly wars; that we must mind our own business; and that we must bring our troops home now, Paul's message was received with perhaps the largest applause of the night. Under Bush this would have been considered unpatriotic or even pro-Al Qaeda.
A recent Brown University study put the estimated cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and operations Pakistan around $4 trillion. $4T is approximately what the US debt grew between 2001 and 2008. This needless debt has undermined our domestic stability and national security.
With over 6000 US soldiers killed, another 25,000 injured and 500,000 disability claims, there have also been at least 137,000 innocent Iraqis killed and as many as 225,000. When considering that there are relatives who will want revenge, this is probably not going to be good for our future security.
Where are we going?
This is the most difficult question to answer but here is a broad stab at it.
Freedom from dictators in the Middle East came without an Iraq 2003-style invasion but with the support of the Internet, FaceBook, Twitter, and YouTube. Social media and communications are a new form of power that may prove to be a rival to military and political power. What was once acceptable military action now can be challenged and curbed in world opinion through the power of social media.
Countries such as China, Brazil, India, Russia and the Middle East will increasingly become a bigger share of the world's economic future and if our children aren't educated in international affairs, cultures and foreign languages, we will be left behind.
Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been financed by borrowing, in addition to the $4 trillion we already owe, we will accrue another $1 trillion in debt in interest by 2020.
The 6th US president, John Quincy Adams, said: "America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." And Abraham Lincoln said: "I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend." I'm not saying we can make Al Qaeda our friend but destroying or even weakening our friendships strengthens our enemies.
Despite the resentment and debt that many of our policies have created over the last decade, American culture, values and way of life are still esteemed by many. But we can't rest on our laurels or past successes, or fail to learn from past failures. American excellence is something that must be maintained, not taken for granted. We must always strive to do better. We can be happy but must never be satisfied.
Paul Heroux lived and worked in Saudi Arabia in 2003, has a Master's in International Relations from the LSE, is an Master's graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, and can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.