The Nation That Fell To Earth

Did the U.S. overreact to Sept. 11? Niall Ferguson, one of the world's leading historians, speculates on how future generations will judge the war on terrorism--and on what it will take for America to win it


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    For all those reasons, it was hardly surprising that, by the time of the fifth anniversary, many experts argued that the U.S. reaction to 9/11 had failed to eliminate the terrorist threat and instead had made the world a more dangerous place. Bush's defenders, meanwhile, insisted that the President's strategy was still the one that would ultimately win the war on terrorism. Only history could determine which side would be proved right.


    For a brief time on that bright, blue September morning, it seemed that the hidden vulnerability of the American colossus had been laid bare. The desperate decisions of some World Trade Center employees to leap to their deaths rather than burn in the flames, the heartrending phone calls of the doomed passengers on the fateful flights, the apocalyptic tsunami of dust that engulfed lower Manhattan as the Twin Towers imploded and fell--this was America's waking nightmare.

    It was also a dream come true for America's enemies. Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader behind the attacks, exulted at his triumph. "Praise be to God," he declared in a proclamation issued less than a month after 9/11. "What the United States tastes today is a very small thing compared to what we have tasted for tens of years."

    It did not take long, however, for 9/11 to lose the look of a truly earth-shattering event. It was, after all, scarcely a revelation that radical Islamist organizations like al-Qaeda posed a threat to the U.S.; they had tried to blow up the World Trade Center once before. Nor did 9/11 cause the severe economic disruption its plotters had intended. The attacks were spectacular, as bin Laden had hoped. Yet for most people--save the relatives of those killed--life returned to normal in a surprisingly short time.

    Moreover, the subsequent military onslaughts against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq seemed to reaffirm the irresistible extent of American hyperpower. Phrases like "full-spectrum dominance" and "shock and awe" entered the military parlance as the Pentagon struck back. The National Security Strategy of the United States, published in 2002, unabashedly asserted the right of the U.S. not merely to retaliate but also to act pre-emptively "against ... emerging threats before they are fully formed."

    For the Bush Administration, 9/11 was as much an opportunity as a crisis. Bush had not been elected on the basis of his foreign policy expertise, but his gut instinct was to go beyond mere retaliation. The idea that the U.S. should respond to the attacks by fundamentally changing the status quo in the Middle East originated with the so-called neoconservatives whom Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had gathered around him at the Pentagon. If Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney saw 9/11 as an opportunity to settle accounts with Saddam, the neocons had loftier ambitions. They saw a chance to achieve a political transformation of the Middle East. What nobler goal could there be for U.S. military might than a democratic revolution?

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