10 years after 9/11 at the current rapid pace of time are enough to permit a general evaluation of its consequences and, therefore, significance. Of course, the question: “what would have been the US foreign policy without 9/11?” will always remain …
Personally, in retrospect, I am of the opinion that the US reaction, particularly over Iraq, has triggered an accelerated erosion of the US single superpower status after the Cold War (see the military over-extension and the huge internal debt which the US have to face in consequence). The subsequent current economic crisis has therefore “caught” the US at a low point, a situation that reverberated across the entire international system.
If, in the light of what we learned about 9/11, Afghanistan was a justified action, Iraq proved to be a “bridge too far”. It attempted to change the entire international “ball game” and, therefore, it was resisted by almost all other powers, uniting them against the US (and Britain) in an effort to stop the attempt. Even if the result was a “draw” – the US could not be prevented to act unilaterally and the other powers had to accommodate themselves to the consequences – the negative impact on the transatlantic relations, including on allied bond, was of a high magnitude. The change of tack brought about by the Obama Administration, although significant, was diminished by the rapidity and large scope of the current crisis, which made the “West” get into it with wounds not fully healed …
In retrospect, I think that Iraq proved to be a strategic error itself, compounded by the subsequent tactical errors in dealing with it (the dismantling of the national army, complete elimination of the administrative elite on political grounds, slow recognition of the need to satisfy the basic needs of the population immediately after the fall of the regime, approaching the after-conflict phase with the same troops who fought the conflict itself, lack of any after plan etc.)
The main strategic error has been, to my mind, ignoring the cultural division between the “Western/Christian” and the “Arab/Muslim” worlds. Perhaps the rapidity with which victory over Communism in East Central Europe had been achieved during the previous decade created a false impression that a repeat in the Arab world – starting with Iraq – was even easier … (The absence of post-victory plans in Iraq might be interpreted as an indication of it).
As proven during the current revolutionary wave in the Arab world, which took almost everybody by surprise, East-Central European experience proved not applicable there (take for instance the requirement of establishing effective civilian control over the armed forces in Romania and, say, Egypt – both subject to revolution – and the difference becomes, I think, clearly visible).
The neglect of those differences has contributed to the erosion of American moral authority not only in the Arab and Muslim region but also in the world at large. A succession of international scandals related to rendition and detention of terrorist suspects have also contributed to that.
In spite of a net improving in the collection, processing and use of intelligence and in coordinating multidimensional efforts in dealing with such situations and the change of military paradigm from “territorial defense” to “power projection”, the 9/11 legacy contained at least three other, this time negative components.
The first is shifting the balance between the “state” and the “citizen” to the detriment of the latter. The rights of the citizens have been restricted and the power of the state has been evidently increased. “Big Brother” has become less a metaphor and more a reality. This is particularly disheartening to us, coming from the totalitarian communist societies in East-Central Europe, because we, as the saying goes, got rid of the devil only to find his (more sophisticated) brother … (The current economic and financial crisis has tilted the balance in favor of the “state” even further, on the motivation that only tough measures taken by the state can cure the crisis…). In sum, the accumulation of a real “democratic deficit” might be our next challenge, if these things are not properly checked …
The second negative component of the 9/11 legacy is that, due to the measures usually taken post-factum, the life of the traveling citizen has become increasingly miserable. The ingenuity of the would be terrorists is not anticipated, but acted upon with vigor afterwards, as if next time one would try to do exactly the same … In that respect, one could say, in sad irony, that the terrorists of 9/11 have accomplished their aim of disrupting our normal lives …
Finally, the third negative component of the 9/11 legacy has been the polarization of the political spectrum at home not only in lesser actors, but also in the major actors of the international system. The bi-partisan spirit dominating the American politics until 9/11 is apparently gone and huge efforts would have to be made to bring it back with the new generations of politicians. (Again, the current economic and financial crisis has only deepen political polarization)
Naturally, I am aware that my evaluation is rather skeptical, perhaps also because the current crisis has only amplified all the negative consequences of the 9/11, confronting the “West”, for the first time in the last 500 years, with the grim perspective of losing the initiative in the international system.
That is so because Europe is not in a better shape either. The current crisis, the deficits and pressures on Euro have had their share in slowing down further integration and even “re-nationalizing” some of the common policies. Moreover, the EU is splitting in two: the countries of the Euro club and the rest, with further integration concentrating mainly at the Euro countries level.
Beyond all these considerations, 9/11 has been, is and will continue to be primarily a human tragedy and the ten years after are an opportunity to remember all those who lost their lives then and a pause for reflection as to what we all have to do to avoid its repeat in the future.
Ioan Mircea Pascu, formerly Romania’s Minister of Defense, is a member of the European Parliament and is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group.