The commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the heinous attacks on the World Trade Center was marked by a climate of defeat. Afghanistan, where it all began, is once again ruled by the Taliban, who in just a single week retook control of the country occupied by the United States and NATO for two decades. The humiliating image of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and of thousands of Afghans who had collaborated with the West desperate to flee the country, will follow Joe Biden like a shadow. And, as if that weren’t enough, the U.S. troops were sent off with a suicide attack by the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K) at the Kabul airport, which killed 13 U.S. soldiers and more than 100 Afghan civilians.
On the domestic front, this round-number anniversary of 9/11 is dominated by renewed political polarization. Republicans — and Trumpism in particular — have gone back on the offensive, convinced they have found Biden’s Achilles’ heel faster than they had expected. The most repeated phrase on conservative media is that Biden “aspired to be Roosevelt and ended up like Jimmy Carter,” referring to the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979. Never mind that it was former president Donald Trump who sealed the U.S. defeat in his negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020.
Biden is trying to turn the page and get back to the domestic agenda, in particular by launching his infrastructure plan and preventing a new wave of the pandemic from jeopardizing the economic recovery, on which his success largely depends. But for now he cannot restore the honeymoon period of the first six months of his presidency. His popularity remains in decline, and his latest measures, like the mandatory vaccination of federal employees against Covid-19, have led to resistance and provided “libertarian” arguments to far-right anti-vaxxer groups.
According to a Washington Post–ABC News poll, the turbulent end of the “forever war” and the emergence of a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled a climate of sad passions: 46 percent and 50 percent of people surveyed responded, respectively, that the 9/11 attacks and the coronavirus pandemic had changed the country for the worse.
In this next period we will see the extent to which the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan conditions the balance sheet of the entire word, and especially if it will harm Democrats’ chances in the midterms next year. And above all, we will see the strategic significance of the U.S. defeat in the war on terrorism, while the country prepares for a scenario of competition and conflict between world powers, primarily with China, followed by Russia and other minor regional powers, but with ambitions in Iran and even Turkey.
9/11 and the End of the “Unipolar Moment”
While, according to historian Eric Hobsbawm, the fall of the Soviet Union put an end to the “short twentieth century,” the terrorist attacks of 9/11 heralded the end of the short cycle of “U.S. hyperpower,” which was definitively brought to a end by an event of a similar magnitude, although of another kind: the capitalist crisis of 2007 and the Great Recession that followed.
The period, referred to as the “unipolar moment” by neoconservative think tanks, was an exceptional time of uncontested U.S. domination after the Soviet Union disappeared from the political scene. The 1990s were a mirage of unlimited U.S. power: the United States had triumphed in the Cold War. And in the first Gulf War of 1991, under the George H. W. Bush administration, it had displayed impressive military potential, developed after the Vietnam War during the Reagan years. With no enemies or threats in sight, the two pillars of U.S. hegemony — the dollar and the Pentagon — seemed solid enough to support the weight of a “new American century.”
The ultimate expression of this triumphalism was the infamous announcement of the “end of history” by Francis Fukuyama, an intellectual from Leo Strauss’s circle, who resorted to Hegel’s philosophy of history, of all things, to provide an ideological justification for the universal dominance of “the West,” that is, the United States: the formula of bourgeois democracy plus economic liberalism was the ultimate object of desire.
Yet, at what was supposed to be the zenith of U.S. hegemony, a kind of strategic disorientation was already emerging in the main imperialist power. The Soviet Union, the enemy that had shaped the geopolitical and military scenario of the past 50 years, no longer existed. And there was no replacement for the great containment strategy, formulated by George Kennan in 1946, which had been U.S. state policy during the Cold War beyond the “isolationist” and “interventionist” tendencies of alternating Republican and Democratic administrations.
The first Gulf War against Iraq, led and won by George Bush Sr., was in line with the “realistic” rationality of imperialist foreign and military policy guided by national interest. After all, Saddam Hussein had taken advantage of that moment of confusion to try to take Kuwait and its oil, which undoubtedly affected the strategic interests of the United States and its regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia.
Bill Clinton’s administration subsequently inaugurated what was referred to as “liberal interventionism.” This was a new kind of asymmetrical war justified by “humanitarian” goals, one that became the doctrine of the Democratic establishment. The paradigmatic example of these military interventions in the 1990s was the war in Kosovo, in which the U.S. had no national interests but two geopolitical objectives: the first was to present itself as the “indispensable nation” in the context of the European allies’ inability to stop the dismemberment of the Balkan countries. The second and perhaps more important goal was to extend NATO toward Russia’s borders as part of a policy of overt hostility. The outcome, however, has been contradictory, since other interventions of this kind, like the one in Somalia, were a devastating fiasco for U.S. power.
The Consequences of the “War on Terror”
After the terrorist attacks on the twin towers, Republican president George W. Bush adopted the strategy of the “war on terror” devised by the neocons, who, while originally from academic circles, had representatives in key positions in the Republican administration, like Vice President Dick Cheney. A unilateral strategy based on military power, it aimed to reverse the decline of U.S. imperialism, after its vulnerability had been laid bare before the eyes of the world.
Although 19 of the 9/11 attackers came from Saudi Arabia (which, according to classified documents, played an important role in planning the terrorist attacks), the United States declared war on Afghanistan because it was where Osama bin Laden was taking refuge and where he had his al Qaeda training camps.
The war in Afghanistan, known as Operation Enduring Freedom, initially had a great deal of international legitimacy and strong domestic support. But after ousting the Taliban in October 2001, the United States decided to extend the occupation of Afghanistan and broadened its objectives toward “nation-building” and then “counterinsurgency.”
The “war on terror” morphed into what was referred to as “preemptive war,” in which the United States claimed the right to “preventively” attack governments perceived as enemies and impose “regime change.”
This was the United States’ logic in 2003 when it invaded Iraq. Unlike the Afghanistan invasion, this intervention was supported by only a handful of unconditional U.S. allies like the United Kingdom. Saddam Hussein’s regime was a detestable dictatorship, but there was no connection between his government and the terrorist attacks. Nor with al Qaeda. The casus belli was fake news: that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
The “twin wars” of Iraq and Afghanistan established a bipartisan consensus that put an end to the traditional shifts between the “isolationist” and “interventionist” sectors of the Republican and Democratic establishments. Obama was elected president promising to end the “forever wars,” but he ended up increasing the United States’ military presence in Afghanistan, even though the U.S. managed to assassinate bin Laden in 2011 thanks to intelligence from Pakistan. Under his administration, there were up to 100,000 American soldiers on Afghan soil. He also extended the “war on terror” to other countries like Yemen, Libya, and Syria.
The Iraq War was part of the neoconservative strategy of “redrawing the map of the Middle East.” And it certainly led to a redistribution of regional power, but not in the way the neocons had imagined. The main collateral effect of overthrowing Hussein was to strengthen Iran, which went from having an enemy in Iraq to an allied government acting in line with its regional ambitions.
One of the consequences of this, which is still a decisive factor in the Middle Eastern geopolitical scenario, is the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran — expressing, at the level of states, the intra-Islamic civil war between Sunnis and Shiites — that led to the war in Yemen.
From the point of view of the objective of “fighting terrorism,” the strategy was a multiplier of extremist versions of Islamism, of which the most abhorrent expression — at least until now — was the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS), which at the height of its power established a caliphate in part of the territory of Iraq and Syria.
It would be a simplification to say that the United States created the Islamic State, much as it would be to say that the U.S. created the “mujahideen” who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But there is no doubt that the U.S. occupation and the heightened confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis added fighters to the ranks of ISIS, which in turn became a tool for different reactionary causes, such as Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds in Syria, or the elimination of the more progressive tendencies that emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings.
This resurgence of Islamic terrorism and the transformation of states like Libya and Syria into “failed states” spilled into Europe in the form of heinous terrorist attacks, for which ISIS franchises have claimed responsibility. Many international ISIS fighters came from European countries, where a brutal form of Islamophobia has developed. This situation has also led to waves of refugees fleeing imperialist wars or reactionary civil wars supported by regional powers.
The Islamic State was defeated in Syria and Iraq, and its caliphate no longer exists. But that does not mean that it cannot act again, as demonstrated by the attack in Kabul in the midst of the U.S. withdrawal.
The Lasting Effects of 9/11
The “Trump phenomenon” is a direct result of the “war on terror,” argues Spencer Ackerman in his book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, published in August 2021. According to Ackerman, the “America First” slogan, according to which U.S. national interests should come first, does not represent a break with the previous policy, as it might seem, but is the logical conclusion of the 9/11 era. Before Trump, Obama sought to establish “sustainable” version of the war on terror.
An explanation of Trumpism based solely on the consequences of 9/11 seems reductionist. Also playing a part were the capitalist crisis of 2007, social and political polarization, and the exhaustion of neoliberal hegemony. But as Ackerman points out, Trump understood the meta-message (the “grotesque subtext,” in his words) implicit in the war on terror: the perception of “non-whites” — Muslims and more generally immigrants — as a hostile threat.
This would explain, among other things, the persistent phenomenon of far-right terrorism among U.S. citizens radicalized by conspiracy theories, such as the “great replacement” of the white population and its values by immigrant communities. And that the main threat actually comes from the state’s own “counterterrorist apparatus.”
Ackerman also points out that 9/11 fueled a recharged U.S. “exceptionalism” that distorted the geopolitical impact of imperial overstretch at the domestic level, as well as domestic resistance to the attack on democratic freedoms and the reinforcement of a hyper-vigilant state.
Owing to its ambitious objectives, the war on terror, failed to project U.S. power to the rest of the world, undoubtedly exposing U.S. imperial “overstretch.” In his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), British historian Paul Kennedy analyzed U.S. power in comparison with the British and hegemonic powers that preceded it and argued that there is a necessary relationship between economic strength and the dominance of a great power, since together with military power, it is the key to exerting a decisive influence on world affairs. His conclusion was that U.S. leadership faced the danger documented by historians that had determined the rise and fall of the previous great powers, which he called “imperial overstretch.” This meant that the sum of its international interests and obligations exceeded its ability to sustain them. In an essay published in the Economist about the end of the war on terror, U.S. decline, and the rise of China, Kennedy argues that structural changes undermined the United States’ leadership position: the emergence of competing powers pushing for the redistribution of world power, economic competition from China, and its relative military advances.
In a sense, the war on terror ended before the withdrawal from Afghanistan, when the Trump administration (and later Congress) adopted the new National Defense Strategy, prioritizing “inter-state competition” and the preparation for long-term conflict between world powers. According to that document, current threats to “national security” stem from the so-called “revisionist powers” — China and Russia first, followed by North Korea and Iran — which are attempting to “revise” the order established by the United States after the Cold War. They oppose it but do not have the strength to confront it as a whole. This is why they engage in regional conflicts, in areas where U.S. leadership has demonstrated its weaknesses.
U.S. imperialism’s “reason of state” for containing the rise of China and preventing the consolidation of its pragmatic alliance with Russia ultimately explains the aspects of continuity between Trump and Biden that have remained beyond the obvious differences and the attempts by the current administration to rebuild the “multilateralism” that was damaged by four years of Trump’s brand of nationalism.
In 1936, Leon Trotsky reflected on the consequences for the United States of having risen to the position of “the world’s leading imperialist power” in a historical era of capitalist decline. His conclusion was that by spreading “its might throughout the world, U.S. capitalism brings to its very foundations the instability of the world capitalist system.” Therefore, “the economy and politics of the United States depends on crises, wars and revolutions in all parts of the world.” Although in different conditions from those of the 1930s, it is this relationship that shapes the increasingly convulsive character of the emerging scenarios.
First published on September 11 in Spanish in Ideas de Izquierda.
Translation: Marisela Trevin