September 2021

The Legacy of 9/11

How the War on Terror Changed America and the World
Table of Contents

On September 11, 2001, the United States experienced the deadliest foreign terrorist attack in its history. As Americans grappled with the tragedy, the administration of President George W. Bush set out to comfort the nation and prepare for war. The immediate target was al Qaeda, the jihadi group responsible for the 9/11 attacks. But the enemy, according to Bush, was terrorism itself. The fight would test the United States “in ways it has not been tested before,” Fouad Ajami wrote in Foreign Affairs that fall. “Washington had no choice but to take up the gauntlet,” Michael Scott Doran argued a few months later. “But it is not altogether clear that Americans understand fully this war’s true dimensions.” 

The massive mobilization that followed would involve ground invasions and drone strikes abroad, an overhaul of surveillance and security systems at home, and the recruitment of allies and partners across the globe. Almost overnight, U.S. foreign policy transformed. In this collection, Foreign Affairs surveys the policy debates surrounding the “war on terror” as the scope of the conflict expanded, the terrorist threat evolved, and Americans’ appetite for indefinite combat waned.

Twenty years on, the campaign to root out terrorism “has changed both how the United States sees itself and how it is perceived by the rest of the world,” Elliot Ackerman writes. Even now, “Washington cannot quite claim victory against al Qaeda and its ilk,” Nelly Lahoud adds. The war that has consumed the United States—and much of the world—for the better part of two decades may simply be entering a new phase.

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