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The day America's decline began

The US enjoyed an outpouring of global sympathy after 9/11. Within a couple of years that sympathy has been utterly squandered

Ten years. An eyeblink in the eternal march of history -- yet sufficient distance to gauge the impact of America's most dreadful day, one that no one old enough to remember will ever forget. After 10 years, winners and losers can be declared. And in the case of 9/11, it becomes more evident by the day, both sides are losers.


The World Trade Center after it was hit by two airplanes on September
11, 2001 in New York City, as part of a terrorist attack. PIC/ AFP photo


The most obvious one of course is Osama bin Laden. The organisation that he founded has been not only decapitated, but decimated. Hardly a week passes now without the death or capture of top al-Qaeda commanders, their security presumably compromised by the documents seized during the raid in Pakistan in which bin Laden was killed. Touch wood, there seems a scant chance of the spectacular 10th anniversary attack for which, those documents show, he was desperately trying to organise.

As for his notion that violent Islamic jihad might create a new caliphate stretching from Indonesia to Spain --that seems even more far-fetched than it did 10 years ago. Even the "Arab Spring" of uprisings against the secular Middle Eastern dictators that bin Laden hated is no vindication of his warped ideology.

The protest reflects far more a popular yearning to enjoy the simple rights of political freedom and economic opportunity that we take for granted, than any answer of 9/11's call to strike down a decadent yet overbearing West. And yet my guess is that Bin Laden would be fairly pleased right now, even though by any standard measure, he's lost the fight he started.

But what about the ledger on the other side. Yes, America's leaders can claim that, contrary to every prediction at the time, there has been no terrorist attack on the US mainland since. And yes, the particular group that carried out the attacks on New York and Washington DC has been largely destroyed. But it took the mightiest military on earth almost 10 years to track down and eliminate its most wanted single target, while the terrorist movement for which he was the inspiration has become a Hydra. Chop off one head in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Yemen and others start to grow elsewhere. And in almost every other sense, these past 10 years have been a tale of mistakes made, opportunities missed and lessons not learned.

Consider first the opportunities missed. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US enjoyed an outpouring of global support and sympathy unmatched since the Second World War: "We Are All Americans Now," proclaimed that headline in Le Monde, speaking on behalf of the European country that has more hang-ups about America than most.

Within a couple of years, however, that sympathy had been utterly squandered. George W Bush and Dick Cheney were Ugly Americans reborn, loathed across the Arab world and beyond. Barack Obama has repaired much of the damage among traditional US allies. But in Islamic countries, America's reputation remains in tatters, despite its deliberately low profile in the campaign to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

And even setting aside Libya, America remains bogged down in two wars in Islamic countries, as a result of 9/11. The October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan to remove the Taliban government that sheltered al-Qaeda was absolutely justifiable -- though bin Laden and his cohorts should have been eliminated within months at Tora Bora. But why did everything take so much longer than it should have? The answer of course lies in that other mistake of the Bush administration, arguably the biggest single foreign policy blunder in all US history: the war of choice against Iraq that has succeeded only in strengthening the position of America's arch enemy Iran across the entire region.

According to one estimate, Iraq and Afghanistan may end up costing $4 trillion between them, an outlay covered thus far not by raising taxes as most wars are covered, but by borrowing. To that extent, 9/11 has contributed to the current economic crisis, helping create the mountain of debt that now ties Obama's hands.

And that borrowing continues. America is still in Iraq and may retain a presence there for decades. The same goes for Afghanistan, even though the killing of bin Laden and the dispersal of al-Qaeda to other countries mean there is no sane reason why tens of thousands of US troops should remain there, on a nation-building mission impossible. Afghanistan has already provided its own grim 10th anniversary of the 2001 attacks: August 2011 was the deadliest month ever for US forces deployed there.

Contributing to the two longest wars in the country's history were two more pervasive errors. The first was the "Global War on Terror" itself. At the time, the Bush administration's decision to treat 9/11 as an act of war seemed to make sense; the country after all had suffered something that neither Hitler nor the Soviet Union could manage, a devastating foreign attack on its own soil.

But declaration of the war on terror was the slippery slope that led to so much that proved disastrous to America's reputation: torture, Abu Ghraib, rendition, Guantanamo Bay, the denial of basic defendants' rights to captured "enemy combatants" (many of whom, it belatedly transpired, were innocent.) How much better to have treated the attacks as a criminal matter, monstrous to be sure, but which could have been handled by civilian courts.

But the US strategy post-9/11 contained an even greater mistake: a refusal to face up to the basic dilemma at the core of its policy - that some of its main allies in the "War on Terror" were in fact accomplices or even instigators of that terrorism. One of them, Pakistan, sheltered bin Laden. Another, Saudi Arabia, provided 15 of the 19 hijackers.

September 11, 2001 was a chance for Bush to take a real hack at the Gordian knot of oil and security that distorts US policy in the Middle East, by increasing the gasoline tax, reducing its addiction to imported oil, and boosting alternative sources of energy. But next to nothing was done. The world was told, you are either with us or against. For the 99 per cent of the population not involved with the armed forces, Bush's rallying cry was: "Keep on driving, keep on spending."

The real world, however, moved on. Amid Washington's obsession with terror, China has stepped up its economic challenge. The present moment has odd echoes of the past -- a whiff of the frivolity of those carefree days before the real September 11, when the fuss was about shark attacks in Florida, and whether a California Congressman was having an affair with a missing Washington intern.

And here we are 10 years on, amid a gathering economic crisis far more obvious than the clues back then to an impending terrorist attack, wondering if the magnificently absurd Sarah Palin will run for the White House, watching in disbelief as the two parties squabble over the timing of a presidential speech. 9/11 is not the cause of American decline. But it's as good a marker as any of when that decline began.

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