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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    They included not just the continued activity of the Islamic terrorist network. In the turbulent years after 9/11, new powers arose to challenge American might. Iran--thanks to raw demography, the reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq and advances in its nuclear program--emerged as the dominant power in the Middle East. Despite the trauma of financial crisis and depression, China became the new hegemon of East Asia. And Russia used its oil riches and nuclear leverage to restore its dominance over Eastern Europe, rolling back the frontier of the European Union. Although all adopted the outward forms of democracy, none of those three powers had much interest in advancing individual liberty and the rule of law, without which elections are a sham. All three had an interest in weakening America.

    With the rise of these rivals came one benefit: as time passed, the once hated Great Satan was no longer everybody's favorite whipping boy. Since the U.S. presence in the Middle East had wound down after 2008, it was no longer obvious why Islamist terrorists would expend their energies attacking American cities. That was why, by the 30th anniversary of 9/11, many younger Americans looked back on that event as a strange aberration.

    Yet reports of America's decline proved to be premature. In 2012 President Warner's successor surprised the foes of the U.S. with a bold reinvention of America. The reform of Medicare and Social Security, combined with a radical overhaul of the federal tax system, had quite dramatic consequences. Growth surged. So did productivity.

    Americans stopped investing exclusively in real estate and got back to the serious business of technological innovation. Congress passed a low-cost, universal health-care system and a new federal sales tax, which allowed a drastic reduction in income tax without the huge deficits that had plagued the Bush years.

    In old-technology terms, it was true, things had not turned out well for the U.S. after 9/11. The project to democratize the Middle East ended poorly. The U.S. lost its influence over the world's most oil-rich region. Terrorist networks thrived in Europe. Iran, China and Russia formed a new anti-American trio. Yet the new technology of the 2010s and '20s did much to negate those threats.

    The adoption of fuel-cell engines by the U.S. automobile industry, combined with a new generation of ultrasafe nuclear power plants, effectively ended America's century-long addiction to oil. The application of nanotechnology to homeland security allowed 24/7 surveillance of Islamist suspects by minuscule drones and invisible implants.

    And so the Great War of Democracy ended--not with the catastrophic bang that so many had feared but with the imperceptible hum of a technological revolution. "We tried to give the Muslim world a political upgrade," said U.S. President Jimmy McCain, son of the former Senator and a veteran of the Iraq war, on the 30th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. "I guess we failed. So instead we gave ourselves an economic upgrade. I guess we succeeded."

    The war that began on Sept. 11, 2001, is now over. Back in 2006 there were those who feared that the U.S. might lose that war. Today, 25 years later, we can see they were wrong. The American Century is alive--and kicking.

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