9/11: A world-changing event
The attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center and loss of innocent lives on September 11, 2001 marked a decisive change in long-term US foreign policy. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, foreign policy was decidedly concentrated on Russia and China, on formulating effective ways to deal with states gone bad, such as North Korea and Libya, on how to find better ways to tackle rulers like Saddam Hussein through more effective sanctions, etc. All that changed with the attack on American soil by a new breed of Islamic radicals.
The Bush administration decided to launch a "global war on terror" that focused not merely on al-Qaeda but also on worldwide terrorist threats. The new policy involved going after suspected financing states that harboured such movements. Possession of suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by foreign states and exporting democracy formed other important elements of the new thinking in Washington. Indeed George W. Bush stated in the inaugural speech during his second term in 2005 that "the survival of liberty in our land depends on the success of liberty in other lands."
For the US to buttress its aggressive new stance, military and intelligence capabilities underwent fundamental changes. Defence expenditures increased exponentially, new bases of operations proliferated in Central and Southwest Asia and the war on terror became the number 1 agenda of the administration. What had been hoped to be quick retribution, turned into a bloody and costly protracted war in Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden was killed in May, 2011, but Al Qaeda remains in various shades and hues scattered across the globe. And as the US prepares to withdraw from both Iraq and Afghanistan, it leaves behind an embittered Muslim world community over perceived double standards on the issue of Iraq's so-called possession of WMDs and "nation building" as an excuse to occupy rather than liberate, while it stands against the issue of Palestinians gaining full Statehood.
The policy of active engagement wherever terrorists or their benefactors were situated has helped upset balance of power, particularly in the Middle East. The ousting of the Saddam regime and the subsequent collapse of the Iraqi state has removed an important counterbalance to Iran. Interestingly, while US policy has been focused on foreign states deemed to be potentially a threat to regional security from gaining WMDs, one of the pitfalls of American advocacy for "regime change" has only helped increase the resolve of countries like Iran and North Korea to attain the "bomb" at whatever cost, so as to not to go the way of the Kaddafi regime in Libya which voluntarily dismantled its fledging nuclear programme some years earlier but capitulated with help of foreign intervention in 2011.
In its preoccupation to win the "war on terror," US economy has borne the brunt of increased defence spending to finance its foreign military interventions. According to data released by Congressional Research Service, it has already crossed $1.3 trillion. While the US budget went from a surplus of $128 billion in 2001 to a deficit of $458 billion in 2008, defence spending doubled from $304 billion to $616 billion over the same period. To put it in another perspective, federal debt as a percentage of GDP rose from 32.5 per cent in 2001 to 53.5 per cent in 2009. The continued rise in the federal deficit was ultimately one of the key reasons for recession in 2008, which continues till date.
On the strategic front, China used the last decade to quietly increase its military capabilities to supplant Russia as the world's No. 2 power while the US remained engrossed over Afghanistan and Iraq. Both militarily and economically, the US is, today, at a huge disadvantage to China with US trade deficit standing at about $1,100 billion in 2011 from a mere $78 billion in 2001.
While it propagates the export of democracy and liberty, the US has inadvertently been forced to join hands with some of the most authoritarian states to fight its war on terror. These include Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, to name but a few. And though more terrorists have been caught and killed over the last decade, contained terrorist financing regimes and financial networks globally through the passage of UN's Anti-terrorism Convention, a 2008 report on counterterrorism by the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments pointed out in no unclear terms that these gains were "offset by the metastasis of al-Qaeda organisation into a global movement, the spread and intensification of Salafi-Jihadi ideology, the resurgence of Iranian regional influence, and the growth in the number of political influence of Islamic fundamentalist political parties throughout the world."
In retrospect, as we look on eleven years since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the fundamental tensions underlying international relations of the United States have not really been resolved. The question in the final analysis is whether the US learnt much from the attacks or did it rely on gut reactions. Historians will debate for years to come on how much damage was done by the neoconservatives who effectively hijacked the foreign policy agenda of the Bush administration, inherited largely by his successor President Obama.