Ten Years After 9/11 – What Have We Learned?

After a decade defined by the terrorist attacks on the United States, and the reactions and events that followed, one thing is clear:  the global advance of core values –  freedom, democracy, economic opportunity, human rights and the rule of law – remains the best hope for the future of all people.

In the early morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I walked to my office in the Old Executive Office Building, part of the White House complex. It was a cool, sunny day with a crystal-blue sky. As director for NATO and Western European Affairs at the National Security Council, I was en route to a staff meeting where we planned to discuss, among other things, the agenda for the 2002 NATO Summit in Prague, Czech Republic.

Passing a television screen on the way, I saw one of the World Trade Center towers in a smoky fire, and a secretary explained it had been hit by an airplane. Strange. When I stepped out of the meeting, I stood and watched as another plane hit the second tower. This was no accident.

I went to my desk, and an e-mail from the security office blasted in red letters – “Leave the building immediately.” In the stairway, colleagues talked about a plane having hit the Pentagon. The rest of the day was a mixture of shock and struggle: watching images of the collapsing buildings; realizing I was alive only due to the heroism of passengers on the fourth aircraft, which crashed in Pennsylvania; trying to communicate with my family through jammed cellphone lines; gathering our young children.

Early Reactions – The War on Terror

The events of that day changed the world. Americans felt vulnerable and fought back. We showed our great patriotism, but also our susceptibility to anger and overreach.

A new Bush administration, which had hoped to focus on domestic policy and reducing America’s role in the Balkans, suddenly found itself in a major war on terror. The administration dusted off underground bunkers and revived cold-war plans to assure the continuity of government in case of a major attack on Washington. The skies above America were closed to airplanes for nearly a week, and subsequent air travel would never be the same.

Sept. 11 opened a gateway to an unexpected future: The war in Afghanistan, which threw NATO’s previous reluctance to go “out of area” out the window; bombings in London and Madrid; the war in Iraq, which descended into brutal sectarian warfare and divided the West; Guantánamo; the surge in violent Islamist extremism globally; and even, most recently, the democratic revolutions of the Arab Spring.

For a time in 2001-02, it looked as if the effort to defeat the terrorists would go quickly. The Afghan Taliban – who had sheltered Al Qaeda – fell from power in a matter of weeks. The siege of the caves at Tora Bora, where Osama bin Laden had fled, promised to bring about his demise and a strategic defeat for terrorism.

Instead, it turned into an extended conflict, which tore at the fabric of our own conscience as much as it made gains against the terrorists. Despite years of efforts to track bin Laden, he proved elusive. Fears that Saddam Hussein could supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction – ultimately based on wrong intelligence – led to the war in Iraq.

But miscalculations there – combined with a diminished focus on Afghanistan – meant that we were soon faced with two wars going badly. A controversial surge in Iraq turned the tide there, but a more modest surge in Afghanistan has yet to prove successful.

It is important to remember that fighting back against terrorists was strongly supported by the American people, and remains so to this day.   President Bush’s approval ratings had soared, and he won re-election in 2004, partly by arguing that his opponent was less reliable in fighting terrorism.  It was the prolonged civil war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina that ultimately caused his popularity to crash, beginning in 2005.  

A Weary West

With bin Laden at large, the war on terror was never far from consciousness. President Bush had vowed never to allow a second attack on the United States as long as he was president, and President Obama can ill-afford to be sitting as President if another attack were to occur.  And terrorist scares have continued to crop up – Fort Hood, the Detroit “underwear bomber,” Times Square, and so forth.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on – with Iraq never seeming definitively stable, and Afghanistan ever seeming to gain irreversible momentum.  Pakistan seems increasingly unable to control events within its own borders, and unable genuinely to break the links many there have with terrorist groups, as evidenced by Pakistan’s harboring of bin Laden for so many years.  Iran pursues a nuclear weapon.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains volatile.  Libya’s revolution may have turned a tide, but the brutal violence of the Syrian regime against its people continues.

At the same time, the 2008-2009 financial crisis and resulting recession hit America and Europe hard, and sapped self-confidence. In America, the cost of the wars – compounded by the costs of the financial bailout, economic stimulus, and new legislation – has left the United States with unprecedented levels of deficits and debt. In Europe, years of mounting debts in several countries, under the roof of a single currency, created pressures that ultimately led to the massive debt and banking crisis we see today.  

Meanwhile, rising powers such as China are flush with (our) cash and extending their economic, political, and military influence.   Take all of these things together, and the toll on the collective psyche of the West has been palpable.

The End of bin Laden – and Lessons Learned

On top of this 10-year history, and this deep sense of frustration and weariness, news of Osama bin Laden’s death reached the world on May 1, 2011.  A long, dark chapter in a much larger story had come to an end.  All that he unleashed continues, as does everything the world has unleashed in response.   But with ten years of hindsight, it is not too soon to begin drawing some lessons for the future.

The most important lesson – as always – is that values matter.   Already in late 2003, it was clear that “killing the terrorists” was a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy. With President Bush’s November 2003 speeches to the National Endowment for Democracy and at London’s Royal Banqueting House, he articulated the need to promote freedom, democracy, and human development as the means to undermine the appeal of extremism.

To paraphrase his message: “For 60 years, we sacrificed freedom in the Middle East in the name of stability, and got neither. Now we know the only path to real stability and security is through freedom.” This gave rise to the Broader Middle East initiative and the Forum for the Future, both launched at the 2004 G-8 Summit in Sea Island, Georgia.   It was a message echoed in President Bush’s Second Inaugural Address of 2005, and President Obama’s Cairo speech of 2009.

Six and a half years after the Sea Island Summit, as the revolutions of the Arab Spring got underway in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the philosophy advanced there proved prescient:  the best way to fight terrorism is to support the advancement of freedom, democracy, human rights, economic opportunity and the rule of law.  By helping the vast majority of the people of Muslim countries reclaim their own societies from corrupt and abusive leaders, the people themselves would reverse the tide of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam.

Other lessons are also there to be learned: 

  • Islamist terrorism truly is a menace, and it will not end overnight. Indeed, it menaces Muslim populations at least as much as it does the West – just look at the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Yet therein lies a clue:  Islamist terrorism is no longer joined through a single polarizing figure such as bin Laden.  We can address problems and possibilities country-by-country, city-by-city.
  • Between the rise of global terrorism and the rise of the Arab Spring, the latter is far more significant.  Both are a backlash against past oppression.  But terrorism is supported by a small, radicalized extreme faction aimed at imposing its own ideology on Muslim populations.  The vast majority of these populations, however, simply want basic rights, freedom and justice within their own societies.  It is ironic that bin Laden – that most radical of all extremists – ended up awakening a more dignified and broadly supported call for democracy and justice in opposition to terrorism, and the war on terror.  Of all the developments springing from the September 11 attacks, this is the most significant and the most hopeful.
  • The international community still lacks a sufficient legal framework for dealing with the challenges of the 21st century.   Our current framework and institutions date from World War II – when terrorism had only local impact, wars were conducted between nation-states, and humanitarian crises were not seen as a global concern.  While President Bush was roundly criticized for his policies on Guantanamo, detainees, renditions, and anti-terrorists drone strikes, President Obama has continued these same policies – mainly because no better alternative is available.  Instead of decrying the “illegality” such actions, the international community would be far better served to modernize the legal framework surrounding them.
  • Europe and America need to heal themselves.   Both have become weaker, while others have become stronger.  In the first instance, this relates directly to our economies and our debt problems.  But it extends to our military establishments, our domestic politics – and above all, our confidence in our own core set of values.   We need to build greater prosperity, justice, and security at home if we are to prove the worth of democratic values, and if we are to have the strength to work with others who still seek to realize those values in their own societies.

Ten years after the attacks of September 11, 2011, we have gone through one of the worst decades since the 1930’s and 1940’s.   But as we look to the decade ahead, we may have re-learned some fundamental truths that can guide us.   This means more work ahead – not less.  But it can also made the decade ahead one of greater perspective and hope than the one we leave behind.

Kurt Volker is a former US Ambassador to NATO. He is now Managing Director, International, for BGR Group as well as Senior Fellow and Managing Director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a Senior Advisor to the International Security Program and member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group. Portions of this article first appeared in an article by this author in the Christian Science Monitor on May 5, 2011.

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