Doom and Gloom

Interpreting the American public mood on the 9/11 decade.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

War and fear of terrorism has weighed heavily on the American public mood in the decade since 9/11, with a majority of Americans expressing the view that the country’s influence around the world has declined and that the United States has overinvested in its reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11. According to a poll I co-directed with Steven Kull, the public wants to see full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (even if the Iraqi government asks for American troops to stay) and it wants a reduction in the presence in Afghanistan.

In some ways, this is a stunning shift. The 1990s saw unprecedented American power and influence, a period when the United States basked in the glow of having won the Cold War and successfully confronted the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by building an extraordinary and unprecedented international coalition. Add economic expansion and prosperity, and it is hard to find a decade when America reigned more supreme.

But 9/11, as we all recall, put paid to that: shattering a sense of confidence and imbuing the public with an instant sense vulnerability and helplessness. Within days of that day, I was summoned for consultation with a congressional leader in his office to hear him declare what many had feared: "this can defeat us."

Then came the invasion of Afghanistan. The triumphalism over the relatively quick collapse of the Taliban regime in Kabul was seen by some as arrogance — but it was largely about rejuvenating public confidence and re-asserting American power. While Americans continued to feel vulnerable to terrorism, that initial sense of helplessness and yes, weakness, lasted but a few weeks. It was replaced by B-52s bombers over Tora Bora, which appeared to accomplish in mere days what the Soviet Union failed to in years. And that mood continued through the "shock and awe" bombings of Baghdad, climaxing in George W. Bush’s "mission accomplished" speech.

What followed in Iraq — the anarchy, the mounting U.S. casualties, the bloody internecine terrorism, the extraordinary sectarian violence — quickly revealed not only that the mission was far from accomplished but also the limits of military power. Meanwhile, the persistence of the Taliban in Afghanistan only added to this sense of limits. Even the killing of Osama bin Laden was a double-edged sword: While the operation was cause for celebration, it was also a reminder that it took the world’s only superpower 10 years to find the most wanted terrorist — despite unprecedented efforts and expenditures (only to find that he was hiding under the noses of its presumptive ally, the Pakistani Army). Thus, in our poll, we find that while most Americans feel that the killing of bin Laden has weakened al Qaeda somewhat, most don’t believe the organization is significantly weaker. And a majority of Americans feel not only that United States has overinvested in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but also that it has overinvested in building alliances in the war on terrorism.

There was an additional irony in the killing of bin Laden and the legacy he left behind. On the one hand, he lived long enough to watch his nightmare come true, especially in the Arab world, where largely peaceful demonstrations seeking dignity, freedom, and democracy succeeded in doing what he and many of his allies failed to do for years. On the other hand, bin Laden said all along that his strategy was to draw the United States into overextending itself, into revealing its vulnerability, to make it feel the pain. Ten years on, the public mood in the United States reflects the sense that he may have partly succeeded.

Among the tolls of the past decade is a fractured U.S. public. If 9/11 brought Americans together in the early weeks and months following the tragedy, one of the casualties has been national unity. On almost all issues, there are significant differences in the attitudes of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, on both issues of opinion and fact. A plurality of Republicans (43 percent) remain convinced that Saddam Hussein provided substantial support to al Qaeda, and 41 percent (compared with 15 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of independents) believe that Iraq possessed actual weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war. A majority of Republicans continue to feel that the Iraq war was justified, while Democrats and Independents take the opposite position. These attitudes are also reflected on a host of other issues, including attitudes toward terrorism, Islam, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Overall, the American public mood adds up to an increasing isolationism — a reluctance to intervene internationally or even, in some cases, take sides in foreign conflicts. This is reflected in attitudes toward the Arab uprisings. In a previous poll conducted this April, the American public had a somewhat positive view of the Arab uprisings. A plurality in our newest poll believes that these uprisings are both about ordinary people seeking freedom and democracy and Islamist groups seeking power.

That’s not to say that Americans don’t have a favorable view of the "Arab people". Of those who want the United States to express its position in the conflicts between the Arab demonstrators and their governments, a strong majority wants the U.S. to support the demonstrators in every country we asked about, including Saudi Arabia. And yet, the overwhelming majority of the whole group of Americans polled does not want the United States to take sides at all, perhaps reflecting fear of a slippery slope leading to military intervention, or at least to more over-investment, particularly at a time of economic crisis.

Attitudes toward Islam and Muslims have also changed significantly over the past decade. Strikingly, right after 9/11, more Americans had a positive view of the Islamic religion than a negative view. Over the decade, this sentiment has turned sour, with our latest poll recording a majority of Americans holding a negative view of Islam, including many of those who didn’t have an opinion in the past who now have negative views.

This is despite the fact that a stable majority continues to think that the 9/11 attacks did not represent the intentions of mainstream Islam; that most Americans view the conflict between Islam and the West as driven more by political than cultural factors; and that most express confidence that it is possible to find common ground between Islam and the West (though this is down somewhat from late 2001). And the American public’s attitudes toward the Muslim people are relatively warm, with a plurality (nearly half) expressing positive views of Muslims.

Whether or not the Arab uprisings this year will continue to project ordinary Arabs and Muslims seeking what ordinary Americans themselves hold dear — freedom and democracy — and continue to have a positive impact on American public attitudes remains to be seen. Whether or not the 9/11 paradigm that still holds fast regarding Arab and Muslims will be replaced by an Arab Spring paradigm will depend much on how events unfold in the streets and capitals of the Middle East in the weeks and months ahead. But what seems to be clear is that it’s less 9/11 itself than the long, bloody, and complicated response to it over the past decade that has taken its toll on the American mood.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola