Rupert Cornwell: America must end its 9/11 mindset

Posters of turbaned bad guys turned into metaphors for Muslims, from Cairo, to the person next to you on a plane

Tuesday 03 May 2011 00:00 BST

Did he change everything? In the end, probably not. The present upheavals across the Arab world that he sought to re-invent have everything to do with economics, and next to nothing to do with him. Undeniably however, Osama bin Laden changed America.

Consider, for a moment, his achievements. The 9/11 attacks led directly to two US wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The first is the longest war in American history, the second is the country's most expensive since World War II. The George W Bush administration had of course long been seeking a pretext to invade Iraq. But by making possible the spurious claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that he would happily provide to al Qa'ida and its ilk, Bin Laden provided one.

Nor did Bush raise taxes to pay for these wars (keep on shopping, was the president's advice to his people). In that sense, therefore, among Bin Laden's disservices to the American people may also be listed partial responsibility for today's US debt crisis. But his greatest and most enduring achievements were psychological.

As no single individual in recent history, he changed the mindset of the richest, most powerful country on Earth. And in the process he led America to betray its cherished image of itself in a third war, the "war on terror" that in fact, if not in name, continues to this day.

A decade on, the America of 10 September 2001 appears a vanished Arcadia. That day was the last of an interlude that had stretched from the collapse of Communism, its frivolous spirit best captured by Bill Clinton's cavortings with a White House intern, and a book by an academic called Francis Fukuyama called The End of History. The next morning, amid the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, history returned, courtesy of Osama Bin Laden.

In fact, the US intelligence agencies had long been alive to the threat. There was bombing at the same World Trade Center in February 1993, attacks on American installations in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Africa, that prompted Bill Clinton to launch missile strikes against Bin Laden's supposed headquarters in Afghanistan. But for Americans these were isolated, mostly far-away events. Not 9/11.

No one who was in the US at the time will ever forget the sense of shock experienced by every American. Until then, their country had been inviolate. Foreign enemies were fought overseas. Yes, there was Pearl Harbor. But while that was technically US soil, geographically and pyschologically the place lay thousands of miles away, in the middle of the Pacific.

Attacks by foreigners, indeed occupation by foreigners, are in the historical DNA of Europe and much of the rest of the world. But not in America's, blessed by peaceful neighbours and the protection of mighty oceans. After September 2001 however, no longer. And so began the "war on terror".

Bush was president – but who is to say any other president would have acted differently, or seen the world through less Manicheistic eyes? The difference is that while presidents since Reagan had muttered about making war on terror, Bush declared that war.

From then on, he proclaimed, you were either for or against America; fence-sitters would not be tolerated. The problem, of course, is that wars require a specific foe, be it a country, a cause, or an individual. Terrorism however was not an enemy, merely a tactic, and the "war on terror" was as unwinnable as the futile "war on drugs", or Prohibition's war on alcohol early in the 20th century. So Bush created a physical enemy, the "axis of evil", comprising Iraq, Iran and North Korea, even though the three had little in common.

The war on terror, we were told, was a conflict that might last decades. It would require patience (though, as noted above, not the slightest sacrifice from most citizens). America naturally would win, but only when the last terrorist on the face of the earth had been eliminated, a moment that might only be savoured by our children, or by our children's children. Some referred to it as World War III – a term not entirely unsuited, given that not since Hitler had a "bad guy" so captured the national imagination as Bin Laden, first by doing what Hitler had never managed, bringing destruction to major US cities, and then taunting from afar an enemy that seemed incapable of catching him. Even in the last few years, hidden in a bunker and little more than a symbol, the living Bin Laden still haunted America.

Most important, he tied the world's lone superpower in moral knots, of its own making. The US was waging war on extremists, Bush insisted, not on the religion of Islam. But everything he did suggested he was doing precisely that. The "Wanted, Dead or Alive" posters of turbaned bad guys turned into metaphors for Arabs and Muslims everywhere, from the streets of Cairo to the person in strange garb sitting next to you on a plane.

The result was an almost unbelievable own goal. In the space of the 18 months dividing 9/11 from the invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq in March 2003, the Bush administration somehow managed to squander a tide of global sympathy.

The US that had inspired Le Monde's headline "We are all Americans now" turned into an overweening global bully, preaching freedom and democracy but whose true mantras were, "might is right", and "do as I say, not as I do". In the persons of Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the Ugly American was back.

Opponents in this war were accorded the quasi-subhuman status of "enemy combatants", cast into a void where the Geneva Conventions did not apply. The monuments of the war on terror are Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the denial to prisoners of elementary rights like habeas corpus, and artful memos by Justice Department lawyers turning waterboarding into an "enhanced interrogation technique".

America thus fell into the trap Bin Laden had set. Every over-reaction by Washington – and even retaliations that were entirely justified – merely seemed to prove that everything he was saying about the evil US was right. The wars into which Bin Laden had drawn America became terrorism's most effective recruiting tool.

By 2008 though, even Americans had had enough. They elected Barack Obama although he represented a Democratic party whose Achilles heel had been its perceived softness on national security. Since then, Obama has tried to repair the damage, and the "Global War on Terror" was officially rechristened the "Overseas Contingency Operation". In Pentagon-speak, GWOT thus became OCO – and now, with the killing of Bin Laden, OCO has claimed the single victory that matters most. The campaign, whatever its name, will continue. Now however, America must pursue the campaign as it was pursued before 9/11, and as it should have been pursued thereafter, as a matter for law enforcement, intelligence and clandestine operations.

The greatest single threat to the US and its Western allies remains that of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of a terrorist group. As in any intelligence war, success will be mainly measured by what does not happen. Since 9/11 there has been no successful terrorist attack on US soil. But the mindset created by Bin Laden remains.

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