America Lost More Than Lives on that Fateful Day
By Giles Whittell
TimesOnline of September 10 2011
Ten years after Mohammed Atta, with a set of boxcutters, boarded his last flight, his legacy* is a weakened superpower and a world only beginning to adjust to it. The marks of the upheaval that began on 9/11 are everywhere and always jarring*. The new skyscraper at Ground Zero is only half-built, but there is an iPhone app to show people where the World Trade Centre once stood. There is no way of declaring victory against al-Qaeda, but there is an elected leader in Iraq. There are prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, but there are also flat-screen televisions at Abu Ghraib. Osama bin Laden is dead but China’s military is on the rise, threatening the Pentagon’s influence in the western Pacific. The CIA’s white fleet of rendition jets is grounded but it still outsources security to mercenaries* and launches drones that take out wedding parties as well as militants. American power is still unmatched, but it is mistrusted and overstretched*.
American foreign policy, under Barack Obama, claims to promote a set of universal values and engagement with the world, not one man’s conception of freedom. It is following the Arab revolutions intently, but not leading them. It is well intentioned and guided by more foreign language experts than have ever stalked the State Department. As such, it is a study in confusion.
The attacks that cloudless Tuesday were an unimaginable trauma. Most survivors have given up trying to describe them. Don DeLillo wrote a novel, Falling Man, about them but he did not make them up*. In 102 minutes, a fringe Islamist cult whose funding may turn out to have been heavily exaggerated killed almost twice as many Americans as died at Pearl Harbor. Innocents, some “stacked up like cord wood*” gasping for air in their final moments, really did jump from 100 floors up rather than asphyxiate* or burn to death. When the towers fell, the destruction was more shocking than anything since Nagasaki. A measured* response from Washington, focused on the real threats to US security and equal to the scrutiny of hindsight, was not inconceivable. But it was never likely and it did not happen.
Instead, 9/11 hastened America’s long-term relative decline in three interrelated ways. It prompted strategic blunders by the Bush Administration. These raised the cost of the response to al-Qaeda to more than $4 trillion when spending by the giant new Department of Homeland Security is included, speeding the world’s largest economy towards last month’s flirtation with default*. Third, 9/11 distracted the United States from the challenge of modernity, which it has yet to meet. As US Marines waged war on a medieval world view, the rest of the West yearned in vain for leadership on fighting climate change and cybercrime. As America defended the lofty enlightened precepts of 1776, China showed what could be achieved in the 21st century with totalitarianism and 15 per cent average annual growth.
September 11, 2001, was a turning point in US foreign policy because “it led to Bush’s new strategy of preemption*, two wars that damaged America’s soft power and also contributed to the current financial mess”, Professor Joseph Nye, of Harvard University, says. “Even more important were the opportunity costs. The two great power shifts in this century are the recovery of Asia and the information revolution that is empowering non-state actors, especially in the domain of cyberpower. Our initial reactions to 9/11 led us to take our eye off the first ball, and respond inadequately to the second.”
It did not have to be this way. With smoke still rising from Manhattan, Osama bin Laden personally claimed responsibility. “We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy,” he gloated. “We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all.”
The message was found on a video tape in Kandahar, Afghanistan. By that time President Bush was already manoeuvring for an invasion of Iraq.
Iraq was not even a candidate for culpability. As the author and columnist Tom Friedman put it last month: “We’ ve never really had an honest conversation about where this came out of. This came out of basically Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq because Pakistan had nukes and Saudi Arabia had oil.”
The errors that followed — the unplanned reconstruction, the dismantling of the Iraqi Army — are by now familiar. They were devastating for America’s claim on competence and moral leadership. No one expected US military police at Bagram and Guantánamo Bay to offer their prisoners musical instruments, as the Geneva Conventions technically required. No one expected Abu Ghraib either.
“We were supposed to be experts on this,” said Sergeant Scott McKenzie, of the 320th Military Police Battalion, discharged after the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal. “All we knew is what we learned in our [childhood] summer camp.” What sort of superpower taught its teenagers at summer camp to strip their captives naked and pile them in human pyramids?
International support for America was already sliding. Polls showed a surge in sympathy immediately after the attacks, articulated by Tony Blair in a fine but fateful speech to Congress. By mid-2002 that surge was gone. The Pew Research Centre’s annual global survey of “US favourability” charts a steady and in some countries precipitous decline for the next seven years.
Terrorists “hate our freedoms”, Mr Bush said after the attacks. That may have been true of Atta and bin Laden, but the broader truth to emerge from the ensuing decade is that the world’s trust in America is shot. “With America under threat of terrorism and reacting the way it did, concerns about American power rose,” Andrew Kohut, of the Pew centre, says. “They abated a bit with the election of Barack Obama, but not in the Muslim world.”
The data offers Washington this grim consolation: Europe, most of Asia and most of the Western hemisphere are united in perceiving China’s military build-up as, on balance, a bad thing. But large majorities in France, Spain, Britain and Germany believe that China has already, or will eventually overtake the US as the world’s leading superpower, and perception is, more than ever, the reality that counts. China’s staggering growth, showcased at the 2008 Olympics, appears to have been sustained rather than held back by oppressive one-party government.
“It shows how far we’ve fallen when you have Chinese Communists lecturing the United States on sound fiscal policy,” says John Bolton, the former US Ambassador to the UN, who is considering a presidential run.
As dawn broke on 9/11, George W. Bush’s most pressing foreign policy worry was Russia’s objection to a new US anti-missile shield in Alaska. The main item in his diary was a reading of The Pet Goat to schoolchildren in Sarasota, Florida.
The conflicts provoked that morning have since taken more than 200,000 lives in all. A generation of American soldiers has come of age better travelled than their forebears or civilian peers, but entirely in war zones. About 6,100 of them have been killed — more in each of Iraq and Afghanistan than died on 9/11 — and more than 44,000 have been wounded.
As the other 99.5 per cent of Americans have gradually averted their gaze* to fret about* sub-prime mortgages* and unemployment, the military has been stretched to breaking point by endless tours of duty, finishing with improved care for post-traumatic stress disorder for the fortunate, and a folded Stars and Stripes for the dead. However, as a former homeland security secretary admitted recently, America has still not learnt much about what makes people become suicide bombers.
Lazaro Dubrocq, one of the children who saw the White House Chief of Staff whisper in the President’s ear during the Sarasota reading, is now 17 and grateful for his brush with history*.
“Because of that,” he told a reporter in the week of bin Laden’s death, “I came to realise as I grew up that the world is a much bigger place and there are differing opinions about us out there, not all of them good.” For now, that may have to count as progress.
Source TimesOnline of Sep. 10, 2001
* legacy - Vermächtnis, Hinterlassenschaft
* to jar - erschüttern
* mercenaries - Söldner
* overstretched - überlastet, überschätzt
* to make sb./sth. up - sich etwas/jmd. ausdenken
* das Klafterholz - Klafterkolz (gestapeltes, gebündeltes Holz)
* to asphyxiate - ersticken
* measured - wohlüberlegt, bedächtig
* flirtation with default - Flirt mit dem Zahlungsverzug (Anspielung auf Debatten im Congress über eine Zahlungsunfähigkeit der USA, die im letzten Augenblick abgewendet werden konnte)
* strategy of preemption - Strategie, Feinde auch im Vorgriff anzugreifen, wenn diese noch nicht zugeschlagen haben oder jemanden auf Verdacht hin anzugreifen
* to avert o.'s gaze - seinen Blick abwenden
* to fret about - sich sorgen um
* mortgage - Hypothek (e.g. zum Kauf einer Immobilie)
* brush with history - hier: kurze, unerfreuliche Begegnung mit der Geschichte
1. According to the author, the inappropriate reaction by the Bush administration to teh events of 9/11 triggered off three negative consequences connected with each other. Which are these and comment of them.
2. With the wisdom of hundsight, what other options to react would have been wiser?
3. Comment on Tom Friedman's quotation: "We’ ve never really had an honest conversation about where this came out of."
4. According to the text, why has America lost its claim on competence and moral leadership?
5. Ten years after 9/11 Americans are getting more and more sceptical of the many measures taken against terrorism. Do you think America will in the future react differently?
(The mindmap can be used as a challenge for pupils to write an essay taking advantage of the prompts shown)