No twenty-first-century event has shaped the United States and its role in the world as much as 9/11. The attacks pierced the complacency of the post–Cold War decade and shattered the illusion that history was ending with the triumph of American-led globalization. The scale of the U.S. response remade American government, foreign policy, politics, and society in ways that continue to generate aftershocks. Only by interrogating the excesses of that response can Americans understand what their country has become and where it needs to go.

It is difficult to overstate—and in fact easy to understate—the impact of 9/11. By any measure, the “war on terror” was the biggest project of the period of American hegemony that began when the Cold War ended—a period that has now reached its dusk. For 20 years, counterterrorism has been the overarching priority of U.S. national security policy. The machinery of government has been redesigned to fight an endless war at home and abroad. Basic functions—from the management of immigration to the construction of government facilities to community policing—have become heavily securitized, as have aspects of everyday life: travel, banking, identification cards. The United States has used military force in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Yemen, and a number of other countries. Terrorism has become a prominent issue in nearly all of Washington’s bilateral and multilateral relationships.

The war on terror also reshaped American national identity. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was a country bereft of the unifying sense of purpose that the Cold War had fostered. Gone was the clarity of the ideological struggle between capitalist democracy and communist autocracy, the free world and closed societies. After 9/11, President George W. Bush marshaled the aspiration for a unifying American identity and directed it toward a new generational struggle. The war on terror, he declared, would be on par with the epochal struggles against fascism and communism. 

Bush’s framing of counterterrorism as a defining, multigenerational, and global war represented an effective form of leadership after an unprecedented national tragedy, but it led inexorably to overreach and unintended consequences. The U.S. government soon abused its powers of surveillance, detention, and interrogation. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became about far more than taking out al Qaeda. American democracy was linked to militarized regime change in ways that undermined its health at home and legitimacy abroad. The victories Bush and his administration promised—and that conservative media relentlessly predicted—never materialized, sapping Americans’ confidence in government and provoking a search for internal scapegoats. The jingoistic nationalism of the immediate post-9/11 era morphed into a cocktail of fear and xenophobia that eventually produced a president, Donald Trump, who paid lip service to ending wars abroad and repurposed the rhetoric of the war on terror to attack a shifting cast of enemies at home. 

The United States now has a president more genuinely committed to ending the country’s “forever wars.” President Joe Biden’s determination to do so is demonstrated by his decision to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and even more clearly by his administration’s global agenda. In Biden’s first address to the U.S. Congress, in April, and in a speech he made at the G-7 summit in June, terrorism was supplanted by the challenges of stamping out a pandemic, fighting climate change, revitalizing democracy, and preparing the United States and its allies for an enduring competition with an assertive China. After 20 years, Biden is taking steps to move the country into a new period of history: the post-post-9/11 era. 

Yet the vast infrastructure of the war on terror remains in place, and its prerogatives continue to influence the organization of the U.S. government, the deployment of the U.S. military, the operations of the U.S. intelligence community, and Washington’s support for autocratic regimes in the Middle East. As was the case in the Obama administration, those realities constrain the United States’ ability to move decisively past the post-9/11 era, lead a global revitalization of democracy, and buttress a rules-based international order. A true pivot will require more dramatic steps: reconfiguring or dismantling aspects of the U.S. post-9/11 enterprise and changing a securitized mindset that has encouraged authoritarianism at home and abroad. The U.S. government cannot end forever wars if it is designed to fight them; it cannot revitalize democracy if democracy consistently winds up on the losing end of national security tradeoffs. 

The United States government cannot end forever wars if it is designed to fight them.

Meanwhile, what the United States represents and what it means to be an American are far more contested today than when the nation reflexively rallied after 9/11. The debate about American identity has become so acute that the country has been rendered more vulnerable to the kinds of violent extremism that its post-9/11 posture was built to prevent. There was a time when a deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol would have been a sobering wake-up call to action; today, it has been interpreted largely through the prism of tribal politics characterized by right-wing denialism and deflection. The same Republican Party that led the establishment of a multitrillion-dollar security state after September 11 doesn’t even want to investigate what happened on January 6. 

In this context, one way to redefine the United States’ purpose in the world—and reshape American identity at home—would be to focus on competition with the Chinese Communist Party. That contest is the one major concern in U.S. politics that evokes broad bipartisan agreement. And there are good reasons to be concerned about the CCP. Unlike al Qaeda, it has both an alternative view of governance and society and the power to remake much of the world to suit its own purposes. Ironically, China’s ascent in global influence accelerated rapidly after 9/11, as the United States was too often consumed by its focus on terrorism and the Middle East. In terms of geopolitical influence, the CCP has been the biggest beneficiary of the war on terror. There are also good reasons, however, to be wary of how a U.S.-Chinese confrontation might play out. Defining the United States’ purpose in the world and American identity through a new “us versus them” construct risks repeating some of the worst mistakes of the war on terror.

THE OCEAN LINER 

President Barack Obama used to call the U.S. government “an ocean liner”: a massive, lumbering structure that is hard to turn around once pointed in a certain direction. After 9/11, the Bush administration pointed the ship in a new direction and generated an enormous amount of momentum. The national security apparatus was refocused on fighting terrorism: vast new bureaucracies were established, organizational charts redrawn, new authorities granted, budgets rewritten, priorities upended. After U.S. forces routed the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, a delirious triumphalism took hold in Washington. U.S. global influence never seemed stronger, and the politics of being tough on terrorism was resoundingly validated at the ballot box in the 2002 midterm elections, when the GOP swept control of Congress. Ever since, the United States has been cleaning up the wreckage left behind in the ocean liner’s wake. 

Today, the countries that experienced the most intense fighting of the war on terror are mired in various degrees of conflict. Afghanistan is returning to the state of civil war and Taliban ascendancy that preceded 9/11. Iraq has weathered a lengthy insurgency that generated al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which later morphed into the Islamic State (also known as ISIS); the country remains riven by intercommunal rivalry and Iranian influence. Libya, Somalia, and Yemen all lack governing authorities and host brutal proxy wars. There was certainly a basis for U.S. military action after 9/11, and certain threats necessitate a military response. Yet the conditions in these countries demonstrate the limits of military intervention and raise uncomfortable questions about whether, on balance, the people of these countries would have been better off without it. 

The costs of the post-9/11 wars have been staggering. Over 7,000 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 50,000 were wounded in action, and more than 30,000 U.S. veterans of post-9/11 conflicts have taken their own lives. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis lost their lives, and 37 million people, as estimated by Brown University’s Costs of War Project, have been displaced by the post-9/11 conflicts that have involved U.S. forces. Meanwhile, the price tag of those wars—and for caring for those who fought them—is approaching $7 trillion.

Fleeing fighting between counterterrorism forces and Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq, May 2017
Fleeing fighting between counterterrorism forces and Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq, May 2017
Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

Counterterrorism has also consumed an incalculable amount of the limited bandwidth of the U.S. government—everything from the time and attention of the president and senior officials to staffing and prioritization within agencies. Consider what else the United States could have done with those resources and that bandwidth over the last two decades, as the country struggled to keep pace with climate change, epidemics, widening inequality, technological disruption, and diminished U.S. influence—especially in places enticed by the CCP’s growing economic clout and promises of infrastructure improvements.

Of course, the party that instigated the war on terror was al Qaeda. After 9/11, the United States and other countries faced the risk of further catastrophic terrorist attacks and had to respond. To their credit, the U.S. military and the U.S. intelligence community decimated al Qaeda and took out its leader, Osama bin Laden. ISIS has been similarly rolled back through a campaign that involved a limited U.S. presence on the ground. My personal experience with the Americans who carry out U.S. counterterrorism policies has led me to overwhelmingly admire them. They have served their country bravely through administrations with shifting priorities, helping prevent attacks and save lives. Aspects of the country’s counterterrorism apparatus have certainly been necessary.

That reality, however, does not erase the enormous excesses and warped risk calculations that defined Washington’s response to 9/11. The kinds of attacks that the country spent trillions of dollars to prevent would have caused only a fraction of the deaths that could have been prevented by a more competent response to COVID-19, by the minimal gun safety measures that have been blocked by Congress, or by better preparation for deadly weather events intensified by climate change—all of which were neglected or stymied in part because of Washington’s fixation on terrorism. The scale of the costs—and opportunity costs—of the post-9/11 wars suggests that the country needs a structural correction, not simply a change of course. 

EASY TO START, HARD TO END

From the president on down, nearly all of the Biden administration’s top officials played a role in the Obama administration’s efforts to extricate the United States from its post-9/11 wars, a complex and politically fraught task that ultimately reduced the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq from nearly 180,000 in 2009 to roughly 15,000 by 2017. And during Obama’s second term, Washington’s global agenda looked something like the one that Biden described in his address to the G-7: organizing the world to combat climate change, strengthening global health systems, and pivoting to Asia while trying to contain a revanchist Russia. 

With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is clear that the Obama administration—whose critics usually fault it for excessive restraint—actually erred in the opposite direction by sustaining aspects of the post-9/11 project. A 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan prolonged the war despite diminishing returns. The expanded use of lethal drones achieved tactical successes but institutionalized a capability to kill people in many countries. Acquiescence to authoritarian allies, including a Saudi regime that launched a catastrophic war in Yemen, undermined U.S. rhetoric about democracy. After Trump took office, his administration deployed tens of thousands of U.S. troops to the Middle East to confront Iran, relaxed restrictions meant to limit civilian casualties, cast aside concerns about human rights, fully embraced autocratic allies and partners, and deprioritized climate change and global health.

The United States needs a structural correction, not simply a change of course.

The clear lesson is that it won’t be enough to merely redirect the ocean liner; Biden and Congress should redesign it. Take climate change. Under Obama, the effort to achieve the Paris agreement to limit global warming drew on scarce climate expertise scattered across agencies and a fraction of the resources allotted by Congress for counterterrorism. The Obama White House went to great lengths to connect that climate expertise with the machinery of U.S. foreign policy: the bilateral and multilateral relationship management required to achieve anything substantial in international politics. Once the Trump administration took office, this nascent prioritization of the climate was halted. The same thing happened to a White House office dedicated to pandemic preparedness that Obama had established after the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Trump shuttered that office, folding its portfolio into a directorate focused on weapons of destruction: pandemic preparedness was quite literally absorbed into the infrastructure of the war on terror. 

Today, the Biden team has the advantage of two decades’ worth of evidence that the focus on terrorism has warped national priorities, with rising public concerns about pandemics, a warming climate, and challenges from China and Russia. To truly prioritize those issues, Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress should work to dismantle parts of the post-9/11 enterprise. The 2001 congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force, which has been used to give legal standing to a wide range of military interventions since 9/11, should be repealed and replaced by something far more narrowly tailored, with a built-in sunset before the end of Biden’s term. Drone strikes should cease to be routine and should be used only in circumstances in which the U.S. government is prepared to publicly reveal and justify its actions. The U.S. military’s global force posture should reflect the diminishing prioritization of the Middle East; the Pentagon should reduce the oversized presence of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, which escalated in the Trump years. 

To make permanent the focus on issues such as climate change and global health, the Biden administration should increase federal investments in clean energy, pandemic preparedness, and global health security and should accompany that spending with major reforms. For instance, agencies such as the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development should ramp up their climate expertise, and the intelligence community and the military should devote more resources to understanding and responding to truly existential dangers that threaten the American people. 

The Biden team will encounter resistance to those steps, just as the Obama administration often found itself swimming against the tide of American politics. The effort to close the costly and morally indefensible U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was stymied by members of Congress from both parties. The cynical extremity of the Republican response to the 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, blended a growing penchant for far-right conspiracy theories with Republican attempts to delegitimize any foreign policy initiative supported by the Democratic Party. The Iran nuclear deal—designed to prevent both an Iranian nuclear weapon and yet another war—proved to be more contentious (and drew less congressional support) than did the authorization of an open-ended war in Iraq. 

Washington should not be surprised when other countries emulate its misdeeds.

Yet Biden is in a post-Trump, post-pandemic moment. The GOP’s embrace of Trumpism clearly endangered the lives of Americans and destroyed the party’s claim to a foreign policy that promotes American values. Biden and his team are uniquely suited to make the case to the public that they are more trustworthy, competent, and capable of securing the country and strengthening its democracy. 

To do so, the United States must abandon the mindset that undermines democratic values. Consider the experience of Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian American who took part in the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square. He celebrated the downfall of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and the democratic opening that followed. But after a 2013 military coup ousted Egypt’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi, Soltan joined protesters in Cairo’s Rabaa Square. Security forces opened fire, killing at least 800 people. Soltan was shot. He was then imprisoned, tortured, and encouraged by interrogators to commit suicide. He went on a hunger strike that lasted almost 500 days and resisted the appeals of ISIS recruiters who were allowed to enter his cell. He was released only after a personal appeal from Obama to Egypt’s dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. 

This dystopian scenario reveals the dysfunction of a post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy that provides billions of dollars in military and economic aid to a brutal regime that allows ISIS recruiters to roam its overpopulated prisons, fostering the very radicalization that justifies both the regime’s brutality and U.S. assistance. The war on terror was always at war with itself. The United States subsidizes Egyptian repression while paying lip service to democratic values, just as Washington continues to sell weapons to a Saudi government that silences dissent and has waged a brutal war in Yemen. It is no coincidence that the governments of key U.S. partners in the war on terror—not just Egypt and Saudi Arabia but also Israel and Turkey, among others—have grown more repressive since 9/11, contributing to the rising tide of authoritarianism around the world that the United States wants to roll back.

Revitalizing global democracy is not compatible with a permanent global war on terror. The balance of tradeoffs has to shift. U.S. military assistance should be conditioned on respect for human rights. Washington should cast off the hypocrisy that has weighed down American foreign policy for too long.

THE WAR AT HOME 

The war on terror not only accelerated authoritarian trends elsewhere; it did so at home, too. The jingoism of the post-9/11 era fused national security and identity politics, distorting ideas about what it means to be an American and blurring the distinction between critics and enemies. 

After 9/11, an us-versus-them, right-wing political and media apparatus stirred up anger against Americans who were not sufficiently committed to the war on terror and hyped the threat of an encroaching Islamic “other.” But as the 9/11 attacks receded into memory and it became clear that no grand victories would take place in Afghanistan or Iraq, the nature of that “other” shifted. Fear-mongering about terrorism and conspiracy theories about “creeping sharia” morphed into fear-mongering about immigrants at the southern border, anger at athletes who took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence, and conspiracy theories about everything from Benghazi to voter fraud. More often than not, this dynamic targeted minority populations. 

Ironically, this redirection of the xenophobic currents of the country’s post-9/11 politics ended up fueling terrorism rather than fighting it, with white nationalists running over a counterdemonstrator in Charlottesville and killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. It also contributed to once unthinkable authoritarian scenarios. When fellow citizens are relentlessly cast as enemies of the state, even a violent American insurrection can become real. 

When a superpower embraces a belligerent strain of nationalism, it also ripples out around the world. The excesses of post-9/11 U.S. policies were repurposed by authoritarians elsewhere to target political opponents, shut down civil society, control the media, and expand the power of the state under the guise of counterterrorism. Of course, this is not Washington’s doing. Yet just as Americans should recoil when Russian President Vladimir Putin indulges in whataboutism to excuse his abuses, they should not blithely ignore their own country’s overreach and belligerent nationalism, which undermines Washington’s effort to push back against Putin, defend democratic values, and reinforce a rules-based order. 

Like Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping has embraced the American war on terror as a template for repression and a justification for abuses. In 2014, Uyghur terrorists took dozens of lives in the autonomous territory of Xinjiang, in western China. State media referred to the attacks as “China’s 9/11.” Xi urged CCP officials to follow the American post-9/11 script, setting in motion a crackdown that would eventually lead to a million Uyghurs being thrown into concentration camps. At a meeting in 2019, Trump reportedly told Xi that detaining the Uyghurs in camps was “exactly the right thing to do.” 

At Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, February 2016
At Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, February 2016
Handout / Reuters

Although nothing in the United States’ response to 9/11 approaches the scale of the CCP’s repression, Trump’s comment was far from the only validation that the CCP would find in the post-9/11 era. In the years following 9/11, several Uyghurs were held in the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay. None were found guilty of terrorism or deemed to pose a serious danger to the United States. When Obama tried to close the prison at the outset of his presidency, there was a plan to release a few Uyghur detainees in the United States to show that the American government was willing to do its part, since it was asking other countries to repatriate some of their citizens who had been detained at Guantánamo but cleared for release, and the Uyghurs could not be safely repatriated to China. Obama’s proposal was met with hyperbolic opposition that resulted in restrictions that prevented the prison’s closure. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, led the charge, releasing a joint declaration that claimed that the Uyghurs “have radical religious views which make it difficult for them to assimilate into our population”—a statement that sounded precisely like CCP propaganda regarding its actions in Xinjiang. 

Americans rightfully take pride in their country’s tradition of global leadership and its aspiration to be “a city upon a hill” that sets an example for the world. But why would they think that others will follow their example only when it reflects positive values and qualities? When Americans invade another country for no good reason, support autocracy out of convenience, and stigmatize minorities in their own country, they should not be surprised when other countries emulate those misdeeds or use them to justify their own authoritarian excesses. 

Americans must confront this uncomfortable reality not because Washington should retreat from the world but because it cannot cede the field to leaders like Putin and Xi. The United States must live up to the better story it tells itself as the leader of the free world. Ultimately, this is the most important lesson that Americans must learn from the post-9/11 period. Restoring American leadership requires rebuilding the example of American democracy as the foundation of the United States’ foreign and national security policy.

MORE US, LESS THEM

All these lessons must be applied to an intensifying competition with China. Biden is justifying huge outlays on infrastructure by pointing to the need to prove that democracies can outcompete the CCP’s state-controlled capitalism. Congress is investing substantial resources in science and technology to keep pace with Chinese innovation. The Biden White House is proposing industrial policies that would favor certain U.S. industries and refining export-control regimes to disentangle critical supply chains that link the United States and China. U.S. defense spending is increasingly shaped by future contingencies involving the People’s Liberation Army. The State Department has prioritized the fortification of U.S. alliances in Asia and enhanced contacts with Taiwan. Washington has become increasingly critical of Chinese human rights violations in places such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang. On trade, technology, and human rights, the United States is working with partners and through multilateral organizations, such as the G-7 and NATO, to forge the firmest possible united front against China. These efforts will create their own political incentives and pressures; they will also create momentum for the expansion of resources and bandwidth within the U.S. government. Already, one can sense the ocean liner adjusting course.

Restoring American global leadership requires rebuilding the example of American democracy.

Yet although each of these initiatives has its own justification, it would be a mistake to simply focus on the new “them”—an impulse that could facilitate another wave of nationalist authoritarianism of the kind that has poisoned American politics for the past 20 years. Better to focus more on “us”—a democracy resilient enough to withstand a long-term competition with a rival political model, forge consensus among the world’s democracies, and set a better example to the world. 

In addition to delivering on big-ticket items, such as infrastructure, American democracy must be fortified and revitalized. Protecting the right to vote and strengthening democratic institutions at home must be the cornerstone of the United States’ democratic example. Addressing inequality and racial injustice in the United States would demonstrate that democracies can deliver for everyone. Rooting out corruption that flows through the U.S. financial system would help clean up American politics and choke off resources that flow to autocrats in other countries. Stemming the flood of disinformation and hate speech on U.S. social media platforms would curb radicalization and undermine authoritarianism all over the world. For 30 years, the U.S. government has prioritized economic interests over human rights in dealings with the CCP, and so have many American companies, cultural institutions, and individuals. This must change—not because of Washington’s geopolitical opposition to Beijing but because of the United States’ support for democratic values at home and around the globe.

The world is a difficult and sometimes dangerous place. The United States must assert itself to defend its interests. But the post-post-9/11 era should be defined not by a confrontation with the next enemy in line but rather by the revitalization of democracy as a successful means of human organization. To replace the war on terror with a better generational project, Americans have to be driven by what they are for, not what they are against.

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