[Viewpoint] The apocalypse that wasn’tThe coverage of the 10th anniversary is winding down, and it is time to consider a different ‘lesson’: 9/11 didn’t actually change that much, beyond changes America itself wrought, and U.S. allies like Korea will carry some of the consequences.
At home, Americans started to realize by 2006 just how much we had over-hyped 9/11. The tectonic plates of international relations change slowly. Al Qaeda could not in fact dent unipolarity. The stock market didn’t crash. The U.S. military didn’t suddenly collapse. The actual material loss on 9/11 was ‘only’ about $100 billion out of a $12 trillion economy, and 2700 people from a citizenry of 300 million plus. (This sounds cold, but from a national power perspective, these numbers are small. Almost 38,000 Americans died in car accidents in 2001.)
Sept. 11 did not unravel NATO or U.S. alliances. U.S. GDP in the proximate quarters continued to expand. China and Russia did not suddenly become nice or nasty. Bin Laden’s much-hoped-for Islamic revolution did not occur (one goal of the attack was to spark a global Muslim revolution with Al Qaeda in a Leninist ‘vanguard party’ role). The much-predicted wave of terrorist attacks and plots against the United States did not occur, at home or abroad.
President Bush’s defenders will say this is because Bush improved U.S. security at home, but what about the roughly six million Americans living outside the United States? If there really was a global Islamic conspiracy to kill Americans, there’d be kidnappings and assassinations of U.S. businessmen, students and tourists all over Eurasia. It never happened.
In the end, well over 99 percent of the population went to work the next day; unipolarity rolled on.
From a domestic perspective, 9/11 was more like Hurricane Katrina - an awful yet manageable one-time disaster - than Hiroshima, which was a city-breaking catastrophe that promised to be the first in a pattern leading to national collapse. Sept. 11 was a sucker-punch - a cheap shot Al Qaeda managed to slip in because the United States wasn’t paying attention. Sept. 11 did not galvanize the Muslim world nor provoke a fiery revolt. And given even reasonable homeland security measures (far less draconian than what the United States choose), repeat attacks at that magnitude are unlikely.
Abroad, the global war on terror (GWoT) turned out to be a spectacular error that probably didn’t do much a far narrower and less hysterical counter-terror effort could have done. Fairly quickly it turned into a global counterinsurgency - expensive, intrusive and corroding of the U.S. military and its other alliance commitments including Korea. Afghanistan has turned into a quagmire; the Taliban lingers on; and Bin Laden wasn’t even found there, but in Pakistan.
More tragically, it is now painfully obvious that Iraq was not worth it. Far too many people died - mostly Iraqis who’d made no choice to be put in the firing line - to justify the modest improvements in Iraqi governance.
There is no doubt that Iraq is a better place, but the United States forced this on Iraq. And we did so in such an inept way that our staggering misexecution of the whole operation invalidates the arguably defensible principle behind the war.
The basic neo-conservative idea that the Middle East needed a hammer strike to break up the horrible nexus of authoritarianism, religious medievalism, terrorism, oil corruption and social alienation that gave birth to 9/11 is actually a good argument. It may be true, and certainly looked that way 10 years ago, long before the Arab Spring. Iraq was to be a demonstration strike to warn them that their local pathologies were morphing into global problems and would no longer be tolerated.
But the execution of that hammer strike in the heart of a dysfunctional Middle East was so catastrophic that it invalidated the whole premise. This is why I supported the Iraq war until around 2007-8, at which point it became painfully obvious that we had no idea what we were doing there - despite the good arguments for the war - and that hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis were paying their price of our incompetence.
Finally, the GWoT has become astonishingly expensive. The GWoT has contributed substantially to the U.S. budget crisis, which will reduce revenue necessary for other commitments, including the U.S.-Korea partnership. Worse, the Bush administration borrowed to pay for it, and actually cut taxes just as the GWoT’s costs began to spiral. This is inexcusable, and has substantially accelerated the global power shift from the U.S. to China, because it is China that funds much of the U.S.’ debt. By 2020, I bet most Americans, and allies, will regret that we ever launched the GWoT.
*The writer is an assistant professor of international relations in the department of political science and diplomacy at Pusan National University.
By Robert E. Kelly