The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Five Years Later…


September 11, 2006

How many ways is Sept 10, 2006 different from Sept 10, 2001? Five years ago, there was a football game on in Prime Time, the Yankees heading for the post season, a Bush presidency struggling a bit to find its legs in the world of international affairs, and a general sense that tomorow would be like today, a regular work day, conducting the Nation’s Business. It wasn’t, of course, and that’s why despite the fact that tonight, as you have prime-time network football, the Yankees on a roll, a struggling Bush presidency, and a general sense that tomorow, September 11, 2006 will be, for the most part, just like today, it won’t be, it will be a day marked by rememberences and reflection along with the regularity of the workday.

Its interesting to look back and recall the mood in the days and weeks after 9-11, and think about what has happened since. In the intervening 5 years:

Ossama Bin Laden went from obscure radical to public enemy #1
The US had the sympathy, compassion, and cooperation of the world
We invaded Afghanistan, toppling the Talaban and installing a new regime
The economy dipped
The President had bi-partisan, overwhelmingly high approval ratings
We invaded Iraq
We lost most of the cooperation and sympathy of much of the world
The number of terrorist attacks has risen over the past several years
No “major” attacks have occured on US soil
A sniper (not a terrorist) held the Washington DC region hostage for over a month
Anthrax in the postal system paralyzed the Washington DC region and killed several postal workers
The US government underwent its most significant reorganization since 1945, creating a Department of Homeland Security and National Intelligence Director
The economy rebounded
Ossama Bin Laden remains at large, releasing tapes
The Talabin is making a comeback in Afghanistan
A US occupied Iraq seems near civil war
A second US city, New Orleans, was nearly wiped out.
The President has horribly low approval ratings
National security is a top issue in midterm Congressional elections
And the list goes on…

The cliche is that “everything has changed,” we’re in a “new era” and that Sept 11, 2001 was some sort of end of innocence for the American public.

On the one hand, I’m inclined to disagree. As William Dobson argues in this month’s Foreign Policy:

Yet, if you look closely at the trend lines since 9/11, what is remarkable is how little the world has changed. The forces of globalization continue unabated; indeed, if anything, they have accelerated. The issues of the day that we were debating on that morning in September are largely the same. Across broad measures of political, economic, and social data, the constants outweigh the variations. And, five years later, the United States’ foreign policy is marked by no greater strategic clarity than it had on Sept. 10, 2001.

If you were in either of the two cities that were attacked on September 11, you might have picked up a copy of one of the daily newspapers. The headline of one story in the Washington Post read, “Israeli Tanks Encircle a City in West Bank.” The front page of the New York Times led with a story headlined, “Scientists Urge Bigger Supply of Stem Cells.” Inside the paper, readers might have also noticed a small item that read, “Iran: Denial on Nuclear Weapons.” The headlines on that morning—before the world learned of the attacks—suggest that our pre-9/11 preoccupations are certainly not that different from those we carry today.

Indeed, if you look at post 9-11 Bush Administration foreign policy, it does have much more in common with a second term-Clinton foreign policy that either might care to admit. Clinton laid the groundwork for most of Bush’s arguments in favor of the Iraq war (bomb in response to WMD threat a la Desert Fox, unilateral action a la kosovo). As Dobson argues, the globalization of the late 90’s continues.

You could even make the case that Bush would have invaded Iraq, with similar results, regardless of 9-11– it may have been no more than an enabling event creating an opportunity for policymakers convinced of the rightness of their cause.

On the other hand, certainly a lot has changed. Everyone will probably be asking–Are we Safer today than we were then? In a sense, yes, but not because of anything that the Bush Administration, Congress, or any other Government Officials have done. The 9-11 Commission identified a host of failures that led to the attacks of 9-11, but perhaps the most damning was a “failure of imagination.” Across the board, everyone realized the intelectual possibility of a terrorist attack (indeed, Tom Clancy even wrote about crashing a plane into Congress back in a book in the early 90’s), but no one thought that “it could happen here.”

What has changed is that now everyone realizes that it “can” “happen here” and that possibility shapes the course of our collective lives. In many ways, America became “safer” a mere 90 or so minutes after the first plane struck the first tower, when the passengers on flight 93 decided to confront their attackers, crashing their plane over PA instead of in DC. At that very moment, our collective narrative as a nation changed. Now, people look for and report suspicious packages and passengers. People are accepting of more invasive searches in the name of “security.” We can now imagine another 9-11, and hope to prevent it. We now see terrorism and terrorist links all over the place.

Which, if another 9-11 style attack is forthcoming, makes us much “safer”–we know what to look for But, somehow I don’t feel so optimistic–because if the future is anything like the past, the future won’t be anything like the past. Its quite possible the War in Iraq and the Department of Homeland Security will be no more than a second Maginot line, trying to safeguard our security in a very uncertain and turbulent world. I really hope not, but I’m still searching for a truly reassuring answer.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.