Analysis

Did 9/11 Change the United States?

We asked seven of our contributors what’s different after 20 years.

911-changed-america-chasm-alex-nabaum-illustration
Alex Nabaum illustration for Foreign Policy

On Sept. 12, 2001, Americans awoke to a world that appeared forever altered. The morning before, the United States had been attacked for the first time on its own soil since Pearl Harbor. Within days, U.S. President George W. Bush would declare a “war on terror.” Analysts quickly made dramatic predictions about how the United States would change as a result, from an expanded security state to radicalization within the country to the end of irony. Some pundits turned out to be correct; others, woefully off base.

On Sept. 12, 2001, Americans awoke to a world that appeared forever altered. The morning before, the United States had been attacked for the first time on its own soil since Pearl Harbor. Within days, U.S. President George W. Bush would declare a “war on terror.” Analysts quickly made dramatic predictions about how the United States would change as a result, from an expanded security state to radicalization within the country to the end of irony. Some pundits turned out to be correct; others, woefully off base.

The 9/11 era is in the rearview mirror: In the last 20 years, a generation has grown up with only a collective memory of the attacks, and the United States has now withdrawn from Afghanistan. But some shifts were permanent. Foreign Policy asked seven of our columnists and contributors to weigh on how 9/11 did reshape U.S. foreign and domestic policy—and what it means for the future.


The U.S. relationship with the Arab and Muslim world will never be the same.

By Mina Al-Oraibi, FP columnist and the editor in chief of the National

The 9/11 attacks forever changed the U.S. relationship with the Arab and Muslim world and have defined them for the past two decades. The terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, shifted relationships based on energy security, bilateral interests, and the maintenance of Israel’s military supremacy and made them largely about the goal of countering Islamist terrorism.

In the second half of the 20th century, U.S. alliances with Arab and Muslim-majority countries were based on whether they fell under U.S. or Soviet influence. After 9/11, U.S. policy toward the Arab and Muslim world became based on the principle of guilty until proven innocent, even though many of the same countries have suffered more from acts of terrorism than the United States. From how wars have been fought to how visas have been issued, the United States’ often unfair suspicions about Arabs and Muslims increased tensions with populations around the world.

During the George W. Bush administration, calls grew for nation-building in weak states, based on a belief that ungoverned spaces and deprived populations led to festering terrorist organizations. But the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq failed to deliver the desired results: more effective nation-states. The Obama administration shifted focus, emphasizing withdrawing from Iraq while refocusing on Afghanistan. The emergence of the Islamic State quickly pulled the United States back in. Both administrations added to the dysfunction of a number of countries. While former President Donald Trump retired the phrase “war on terror,” neither he nor U.S. President Joe Biden came up with an alternative to tackle terrorism beyond targeted drone strikes.

9/11 changed the lives of those who lost loved ones in the attacks on the United States, as well as those who lost their lives in the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. With the calamitous exit from Afghanistan and U.S. priorities unclear going forward, it does not appear that Washington has learned from the mistakes of the past two decades. Instead, U.S. military might and weakness in implementing a strategic foreign-policy doctrine appear to be constants. Finally, the danger of extremist groups remains, and while the leadership of those groups has changed, their doctrine has not.


Misinformation reshaped political discourse.

By Steven A. Cook, FP columnist and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

It seems self-evident that much has changed about U.S. foreign and domestic policy because of the 9/11 attacks. To my mind, U.S. political discourse suffered some of the greatest collateral damage. In the days, weeks, and months after the twin towers fell and the fires were extinguished at the Pentagon, Americans were bombarded with analysis about the Middle East. Some of this work was useful, but many of the pundits, commentators, and newly self-declared terrorism analysts did a tremendous disservice to the country.

The misinformation disseminated about Islam and Arabs, as well as the politics, history, and culture of the Middle East, was harmful. Words like “madrassa”—which simply means school—and “sharia” (Islamic law) were made to sound sinister. The quality of the national conversation provided an opportunity for professional bigots to advance an agenda based on thinly veiled racism and Islamophobia. It was during this era that Americans started hearing about “creeping sharia” and the supposed Muslim Brotherhood infiltration of the U.S. government, among other conspiracies regarding people from the Middle East.

As a result, Muslims and Arabs—or people mistaken for one or the other—were also targeted in airports and other public spaces. Perhaps these kinds of incidents would have happened after the attacks even if the commentary were more informed, but it is hard to ignore the impact of the post-9/11 discourse on the nationalism and white supremacy of today.

One could draw a straight line from firehose of misinformation after the 9/11 attacks to today’s political discourse, including that of white nationalists and Donald Trump. The former president’s suggestions that the United States is at war with Muslims, that Muslims should be banned from entering the United States, and that Muslim residents should be placed under surveillance all have roots in the post-9/11 portrayal of the Middle East.

War lost its currency as an instrument of change.

By Anchal Vohra, FP columnist and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut

The West’s protracted intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11 broke the collective will of the U.S. state and the American people to entangle themselves in further conflicts abroad. This sentiment is understandable: The United States lost thousands of troops and trillions of dollars over two decades, its attempts at nation-building failed, and all it gained was a global reputation as a warmonger.

U.S. presidents have now given up on their perhaps naive hope that they can democratize authoritarian and conflict-riven countries. Every leader since President George W. Bush tried to end these wars, retreat from the Middle East, and turn their focus to the rise of China. In withdrawing from Afghanistan, Biden is the first to succeed. But it has turned out to be such a glaring humanitarian disaster that analysts have begun to ask whether continuing a limited U.S. presence would have better served Afghans and American interests.

The Taliban have returned to power on the back of the deal they signed with the United States in Doha, Qatar, last year—but they still have ties with al Qaeda. Moreover, the attack on departing U.S. soldiers and Afghans by the Islamic State-Khorasan at the Kabul airport shows that Afghanistan will remain a haven for terrorists determined to hurt U.S. interests. It is unclear whether the recent turn of events in Afghanistan will encourage or deter Biden from following suit in Iraq, where there are still 2,500 U.S. troops.

The United States’ sudden distaste for war presents a second conundrum: If military force is rejected, and Russia and China’s veto power at the United Nations Security Council continues to render diplomatic efforts useless, how can the international community stop dictators from killing and persecuting their own people? Then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s reluctance to go to war in Syria gave Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies a free hand to bomb opposition areas and turn cities into rubble. Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against the Syrian people and got away with it, despite Obama’s threats of military force. At the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China vetoed any inquiry into the Syrian leader’s alleged war crimes.

War as an instrument of change when all else fails has lost currency in the post-9/11 world order. But the free world must consider what can replace military power to prevent a dictator from using chemical weapons, to stop religious vigilantes from beheading women, or to protect minorities from genocides. Biden’s democracy summit later this year could be a good place to start.


9/11 shifted the field of political science.

By Sumit Ganguly, FP columnist and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington

As I walked toward my office at the University of Texas on Sept. 11, 2001, a graduate student stopped me and said that two planes had rammed into the World Trade Center. My immediate reaction was one of disbelief, followed by a sense of abject horror. As a specialist on the contemporary politics of South Asia, I soon realized that both my personal and professional lives had irrevocably changed.

As an American of Indian origin, I had rarely if ever encountered much overt prejudice or harassment. Unfortunately, 9/11 changed all of that. The first of many such episodes took place at O’Hare International Airport that fall as I was on my way to Washington to testify before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Transportation Security Administration personnel hauled me out of the boarding line, as they refused to believe that the needles in my carry-on luggage were innocuous diabetic supplies. It would hardly be the last such incident. I was routinely pulled for ostensibly random checks over the next couple years—despite the TSA’s insistence that racial profiling was off-limits and even as I carried my U.S. passport on domestic flights.

While I was being targeted as a potential threat, I was simultaneously being sought out as an expert in a rapidly expanding area of academic interest: counterterrorism. 9/11 and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq led to a renewed emphasis on the study and practice of counterinsurgency, and both private foundations and the U.S. government increased funding for counterterrorism studies. I suddenly found my dormant expertise in counterinsurgency in considerable demand, especially from government agencies. Meanwhile, student interest also increased. I directed two doctoral dissertations, organized conferences, and offered new courses on the subjects.

Two decades later, I don’t experience any unwanted scrutiny at airports. However, the professional research interests triggered by U.S. policy responses to the events of 9/11 remain mainstays today, in my own work and in the field of political science.


State power swelled—and not just the military.

By Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy

The most enduring change brought about by the 9/11 attacks may be the way that American policymakers translated potential U.S. power into kinetic power beyond the military domain.

The conventional wisdom is that the attacks catalyzed the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. This isn’t entirely wrong: Successive presidents converted a larger fraction of potential military power into military action. Essential tasks that could not be done effectively by nonmilitary elements ended up on the military’s assignment sheet. But these trends well preceded Bush’s response to 9/11; they were an important part of his critique of the Clinton administration on the campaign trail against outgoing Vice President Al Gore.

Indeed, the conventional wisdom obscures more than it enlightens, missing how policymakers also expanded the nonmilitary elements of state power and harnessed them in the service of U.S. foreign policy. The defense budget doubled between 2001 and 2008, as every pundit knows. Less remarked upon is that the foreign aid budget more than doubled over the same period. Some of this increase was directly linked to military intervention, but much of it was directed at other development goals, including basic public health. In some cases, foreign aid was the substitute for increased military intervention.

Over the same period, the intelligence budget increased dramatically, and the techniques of intelligence transformed, making greater use of open-source intelligence and improving coordination between domestic and foreign intelligence and law enforcement. Successive administrations took homeland security seriously, including aviation security, cybersecurity, critical infrastructure protection, countering violent extremism, and confronting domestic extremists. The military continues to play a role in each of these efforts, but it is a supporting role in all but cybersecurity.

Policymakers also innovated to leverage U.S. economic power to further foreign-policy goals. Instead of broad economic embargoes, targeted financial levers were developed and are now the tool of choice for policymakers before resorting to military force when U.S. interests are challenged abroad. What this means is that U.S. statecraft is not a one-instrument band, relying exclusively on the trumpet of military power. The military remains a vital element of national power, but it’s one that is supported and often supplanted by others.

This change has implications for the United States’ role in the world after its defeat in Afghanistan. The so-called restrainers, who have called for an end to U.S. military operations abroad, are understandably cheering the retreat and assuring anyone who will listen that this will make the United States safer. Meanwhile, hawks warn that future threats will make this retreat as dangerous as the defeat in Vietnam, which emboldened Soviet bloc advances and put the United States on its hind legs for almost a decade—until then-President Ronald Reagan oversaw the culmination of a renewal in U.S. geopolitical standing.

It is too soon to tell who is more prescient. But if something like the dovish expectation comes to pass, the way nonmilitary elements of national power have been mobilized in the service of U.S. interests in the past 20 years provides one compelling explanation. Those elements can still be wielded even if the military returns to its barracks.


America’s counterterrorism wars haven’t really ended.

By Janine di Giovanni, FP columnist and the author of The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets, to be published in October

9/11 changed everything. As a war reporter and conflict analyst, I see conflicts as falling neatly into pre-9/11 and post-9/11 categories. The wars that I reported on during the 1990s, from Bosnia to Sierra Leone, were brutal and horrific—but largely based on ethnic or tribal fighting, or republics breaking away from the yoke of colonialism or the remnants of the Cold War. Much emphasis was placed on humanitarian intervention, which rarely worked.

I was walking down a Paris street when I heard the news of the twin towers falling. The next day, I was on a plane to Moscow, then another to Tajikistan, and then on a flat raft crossing the Amu Darya river into Taliban-held Afghanistan. I spent months with the Northern Alliance until Kabul fell to U.S.-led coalition forces in November 2001. From there, I went to Tora Bora, where U.S. forces were trying to root out Osama bin Laden. I then spent years in Iraq, covering the conflict against the insurgency there.

The wars I covered after 9/11 had a common thread: insurgencies, radical groups, and the rise of jihad. The U.S. response to the attacks turned conflicts into wars about terrorism, while at the same time attempting nation-building that largely failed. The United States, as well as France and to some extent the United Kingdom, remain focused on combating terrorism, whether it be al Qaeda in the Sahel, Boko Haram, the Islamic State, or homegrown radicalization. Even the civil war in Syria, which began as an effort to free people from dictatorship, became a battle between the Assad regime and a coalition of radical groups that took over the initial mandate.

Many of these post-9/11 conflicts are also proxy wars—instigated by a major power, then involving other countries in the region. Look at Yemen, Syria, even Afghanistan, and soon Ethiopia: It’s all about regional players jumping in to carve up the carcass of an embattled country. Commentators and policymakers should approach future wars with this lens to understand and hopefully work toward negotiations and peacemaking.


The United States is no longer indispensable.

 By Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.

9/11 changed how the United States understands its role in the world—but not as its leaders hoped.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States opted not to retract its coercive power around the world. Instead, it embarked on a search to give this outsize power a purpose. “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation,” then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in 1998. But in the absence of a major threat and in a time of plenty, it remained unclear how much of a burden U.S. citizens were willing to bear to make their country indispensable across the globe.

At first, the 9/11 attacks appeared to solve this problem—to imbue U.S. power with an inarguable purpose. Bush immediately declared that the United States had been attacked because of the power of its example. He then responded by serving up spectacular examples of U.S. power, launching what he termed a “global war on terror” and invading Afghanistan. Even that was not enough. Iraq offered a stage to imagine that the United States, knocked back on 9/11, could transform an entire region and drive history forward. The United States had to be indispensable to the fate of the world, and what better test than on countries that could not be more distant or different from itself?

When carnage ensued, the American people adjusted, turning against the wars as well as the U.S. role that drove them. If being the “indispensable nation” meant waging fruitless, endless war, then the United States needed a new way to relate to the world. Trump repudiated the notion that the United States had a responsibility to guard international order by force, even as he continued to pursue military dominance, only wrapped in an aggrieved nationalism. His successor, Biden, has now withdrawn U.S. forces from Afghanistan, vowing to end “an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”

U.S. global leadership has hardly come to a close. To the contrary, the United States is likely to gain power and influence by disentangling itself from costly conflicts. But it is finally possible to say, 20 years later, that 9/11 has shattered the U.S. pretension to global indispensability. Two decades more and the United States might yet become a nation among nations, no longer lording its power over others to get what it needs.

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