The Spirit of September 12

WASHINGTON, DC – The terrorist attacks on the United States ten years ago provoked a powerful reaction: the dispatch of American troops, first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq, and the creation of a sprawling new federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, to coordinate and supervise measures and programs aimed at protecting the US from further assaults. This expensive, intensive effort – known as the “global war on terror” – can be counted as a success, a diversion, and an example.
Michael Mandelbaum
Michael Mandelbaum

WASHINGTON, DC – The terrorist attacks on the United States ten years ago provoked a powerful reaction: the dispatch of American troops, first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq, and the creation of a sprawling new federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, to coordinate and supervise measures and programs aimed at protecting the US from further assaults. This expensive, intensive effort – known as the “global war on terror” – can be counted as a success, a diversion, and an example.

The most important fact about the last decade is that, since 9/11, there has been no successful foreign terrorist attack in the US. For that, US government efforts deserve credit. No doubt a good deal of the money spent to make the US safe has been wasted. And the group that launched the initial attacks, Al Qaeda, never posed the kind of massive threat that America’s great Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, once did.

Still, it was clear in the wake of September 11 that a small number of people, motivated by a radical form of Islam, was determined to inflict as much harm on America and Americans as they could. Had they managed even a few more attacks similar to the ones on New York and Washington, they could have done serious damage. At worst, the US might have become a more closed, suspicious country, retreating from the openness that has been its hallmark.

Fortunately, they failed, surely in part because the American government, in cooperation with other governments, worked hard to thwart them, killing and capturing some and discouraging others. In terms both of money and bureaucratic procedures – carefully scrutinizing all airline passengers, for example – Americans may have overpaid for a decade of avoiding terrorist attacks. But overpaying was far preferable to suffering more attacks.

The highest cost of the war on terror has come not from what the US did over the last decade, but from what it failed to do. As Thomas L. Friedman and I write in our new book That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, America’s future depends on meeting four major challenges: globalization, the revolution in information technology, America’s rapidly growing deficits and debt, and its pattern of energy usage. Failure to deal effectively with these challenges will lower America’s rate of economic growth, thereby blocking generational upward mobility and undercutting the basis of US global influence.

Over the last ten years, the US has not successfully addressed these four challenges. There are several reasons for this, but prominent among them is America’s decade-long focus on the threat of terrorism. While necessary in some form to protect the country, the war on terror as it played out has served to divert America’s attention and resources from the problems that it must solve in order to ensure its future prosperity and power.

The most pressing of these problems is the condition of the education system, which does not adequately prepare young Americans for the jobs available in an economy transformed by globalization and information technology. Moreover, while over-investing in airport security and in nation-building in the Hindu Kush and Mesopotamia, the US underinvested in the roads, bridges, laboratories, and scientists that it needs for economic growth.

To meet its major challenges, America will have to cut major government programs on which many people rely – the two programs that affect older Americans, Social Security and Medicare, in particular – and increase revenue by raising some taxes. At the same time, America will need to invest in domestic infrastructure and research and development, which are key to innovation and economic growth.

The formula of cutting, taxing, and investing is not a popular one in America’s current political climate, and can be implemented only through the emergence of a broadly shared sense of sacrifice and purpose. The terrorist attacks ten years ago created just such a political climate.  They produced the kind of resolve that will be required in the years ahead to address the equally important tasks that the US now faces.

In the decade to come, the US must remain vigilant in order to prevent the kind of attacks that took place on September 11. But, at the same time, America and Americans must recapture the spirit of September 12 and harness it to meet the great challenges they face.

Michael Mandelbaum is Professor of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the co-author, with Thomas L. Friedman, of That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.

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