A World Remade: 9/11, America and the Western World

A World Remade: 9/11, America and the Western World

Jeffrey Kaplan
Distinguished Fellow, Danube Institute
Visiting Professor, University of Óbuda
Budapest, Hungary

"A World Remade: 9/11, America and the Western World," Trends Abu Dabi,

Once Upon a time

It was 1970 or thereabout and I had won a scholarship to remote Western State College high in
the Colorado ski country. I was about to board a puddle jumper, which is an Americanism for a
small plane that, with a good push and a tailwind, can get high enough to clear a few buildings
before landing again. It literally jumps over puddles rather than lakes. I was about to board with
my fellow passengers, all 15 of them, when I was pulled aside with another student for a
‘security screening’. It was a novel experience. No one had ever been security screened before,
although I suspect the two of us were chosen for our luxuriant locks more than any sense of
impending threat. But there had been a rash of hijackings from Miami to Cuba recently and the
airlines were ‘responding’ to the threat. How anyone could force a plane like this to Cuba, or
even Wyoming for that matter, was a mystery to all and we were soon sent back to the line
unchecked in response to the considerable customer mirth. 
A World Remade
Until the emergence of Generation X in a microchip world, every generation recalls a singular
event during which all who had reached the age of understanding could tell you exactly where he
or she was and what they were doing when they heard the news. For me it was Friday, November
22, 1962, and I was standing by the schoolyard flagpole awaiting the appearance of a boy who I
had challenged to meet me there for pugilistic purposes. The fight never took place in the wave
of public mourning. As I began to travel and reside in the Middle East, men of my age would
recall the crossing of the Sinai by Egyptian forces in 1973 while Israelis invariably harked back
to the Six Day War in 1967. The generation before mine could recount in detail in what coffee
shop they were sitting and who they were with when the first fell under they spell of Nasser’s
words and his dream of Arab Nationalism.
9/11 was just such an event, and not only in the US. A globalized world stopped, stunned
by the magnitude of the attack and mesmerized by the constant replaying of the second plane
hitting the World Trade Center.
I was in distant Barrow, Alaska, rapidly exchanging emails with
friends and colleagues in the field, notably David Rapoport, whose scholarly excitement
suddenly ended when he recalled he had a daughter working close to Ground Zero in New York.
I later learned that a niece of mine, then only 6 years old, was so terrified that a plane would fly
into their apartment in a working class suburb of Madrid that she refused to sleep without her
mother for weeks. It was a global event and Osama Bin Laden’s boast that for only $100,000 he
had changed the world proved to be all too accurate.

The War on Terror

In the United States, there were two primary domestic responses to the attacks that together
would utterly remake the world that Americans knew. One was immediate. On September 25,
2001, President Bush announced the opening of the Global War on Terror by signing an
Executive Order freezing assets of alleged terrorist groups, including all fundraising operations.
The Patriot Act, a massive compendium of laws that was passed by Congress on October 26,
2001, was so dense and arcane that few, if any, of those voting on it had actually read it. The
creation of the Department of Homeland Security was next. It took amorphous shape on
November 5, 2002.
In its formative stages, I knew one of its founding members, an army
colonel who was commanding the security desk at the Pentagon when the plane hit an adjacent
section on 9/11. When last we spoke by phone, he was were ordering desks, computers and paper
clips and had no clue what it was they were tasked to do. This is known in Washington as a
budget in search of a mission. In a few short years they had found a mission; absorbing smaller
agencies like an amoeba, growing beyond anyone’s capacity to effectively control. It’s tentacles
today include ICE (Immigration) the TSA (Aviation Security), and probably more than its own
organizational charts reflect.
Since 9/11, there has not been another major terrorist attack on US soil by any foreign
terror organization. The killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, nearly a decade after the
9/11 attacks effectively crippled Al Qaeda, while the fall of Raqqa in 2017 returned Daesh to its
roots as a loose network of apocalypticists and anti-Shi’a extremists. Both can inspire attacks but
can no longer command and control them. The attacks themselves have declined from
synchronized strikes a la 9/11, 7/7 in Britain or the Madrid subway bombings, to opportunistic
low tech attacks by untrained actors using such weapons as guns, knives and cars. Indeed, in the
wake of the attack on Congress on 6 January, the Biden administration has declared domestic
terrorism, especially from the far right, as the greatest terrorist threat currently facing the United
States. The vastly expensive War on Terror on this level can therefore be considered a success
for US counterterrorism policy.
By contrast, the military side of the War on Terror has been an unmitigated disaster. On
October 7, 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom was launched as an ill-starred invasion of
Afghanistan. It opened with a round of demands to Taliban leader Mullah Omar to hand over
Osama bin Laden to the United States, which was conducted concurrently with a CIA operation
code-named Jawbreaker which sought tribal support for the invasion to come. US forces came
close to their quarry at Tora Bora in December 2001, but bin Laden escaped into Pakistan. What
followed was a deterioration of the US position as precipitous as was that of the Soviet invaders
in 1979.
President Trump ordered a major military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2018 and
President Biden ordered a complete withdrawal in 2021. At this writing, in an eerie echo of the
US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, three provincial capitals have fallen and Taliban forces,
promising a kinder gentler rule than before, close inexorably on the big three; Herat, Kandahar
and Kabul itself. Thus is the ignominious end to America’s longest war.
If Afghanistan was a long, futile slog, the invasion of Iraq by the Bush Administration in
2003 was a disaster from the get-go. Brief moments of hope like the Anbar Awakening in which
Sunni towns, tired of the constant violence and brutality of Al Qaeda units, sought with US
support to rid themselves of their terrorist overlords, invariably ended in disaster for all
concerned. It could be no other way.
The war was undertaken with a tried and true ploy—a lie constantly repeated until it took
on the semblance in many minds of truth. When I was much younger than today, the lie was a
mythical attack on a US ship in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam. The result was the
1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which provided the legal pretext for President Jonson’s
disastrous War in Vietnam. In Iraq, it was the malign djinn of weapons of mass destruction,
which Saddam Hussein had used once on the hapless Kurdish residents of Halabja. By 2003, as
it turns out, Saddam’s arsenal was aging and obsolete—more a danger to those who might use
them than to potential victims. This was no secret in the international community, but no matter,
what was later named Operation Iraqi Freedom was undertaken with shock and awe in an aerial
destruction of Baghdad.
This was a classic case of what students of intelligence decry as ‘politicized intelligence’,
which is simply the practice of telling a decision maker what he or she wants to hear rather than what the intelligence community believes to be true. It is a short term career booster but a longterm disaster. CIA chief George Tenet, who surely knew better, parlayed the lie into the oncecoveted Medal of Freedom, which President Bush awarded him for his ‘service’ in greasing the
skids into Iraq.
Whatever thin hope the US had of salvaging something, anything, from the Iraq fiasco
disappeared in June 2014 with the terrorist attack on the Shi’ite al-Askari Mosque in Samarra
which tipped an already broken nation into sectarian fueled civil war.
The history is voluminous, but even in distant Wisconsin it was reflected in the
experience of veterans, some my students, returning from the War. Before 2014, students who
had been part of the Civil Affairs effort described shedding their body armor and boots alike and
sitting down with Iraqis in their own majlis to speak of many things. After 2014, the descriptions
became much darker with civilian contact invariably coming in the form kicking down doors and
terrorizing residents in the illusive hunt for terrorists.
What has changed
Almost everything on the civilian side, almost nothing on the military side. Thus the latter first.
America’s military adventures in the Post-War, post-Korea era are invariably
ideologically driven and better resemble a grand crusade against a mythical dragon than a
classical military conflict. All, from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, lacked both coherent
objectives and a planned exit strategy. All have been epic, bloody failures. This is unlikely to
Each new American campaign is announced with the invocation of the word ‘freedom’
with the same tired cynicism as jihadists evoke the Greatness of God before committing
atrocities on a helpless civilian population. America achieved the same terrible results, although
on a vastly greater scale. Perhaps this will change. But not in my lifetime.
The cry of ‘freedom’ permeates the American public sphere as well and is evoked by the
far left just as much as the far right, although those in the middle have come to take the hue and
cry with something of a grain of salt after the spectacle of the Trump Administration and its
aftermath. But the freedom that I knew in the 1960s would be alien to the generation of today.
The Patriot Act curtails much of the liberty that we knew in those days, while long lines at the
gates of modern airports bring home in microcosm the securitization of so many facets of public
All of this has grown from the poison seed of the attacks of 9/11 which, for a very
nominal cost, changed the nation and the world.

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