The anniversaries of 9/11 mount, yet every year on that date we recall with extraordinary clarity where we were on that terrible day, what we felt, how we gradually absorbed the enormity of the horror that had been visited upon us.
I was in the New York Times newsroom in Times Square that day, and among many other things, I remember how we scrambled to glean some information about Al Qaeda and its zealous leader, Osama bin Laden. Islamic extremism was not new, but it was still a dim and obscure force. The acrid smoke and dust billowing over ground zero spoke to the enormous potential for destruction in that hatred, yet when President George W. Bush declared “war on terror,” there was still a shared belief that we would identify the enemy, hunt him down and win the “war.”
The world then still seemed on an upward trajectory after the collapse of Communism. It is worth recalling that the first foreign leader to call Mr. Bush that day was President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, offering sympathy and unconditional support. “We feel your pain and we support you,” Mr. Putin said in a televised statement, a sentiment echoed across the world.
Thirteen years later, the anniversary of 9/11 was observed this past week on the day after President Obama announced another fight against the various manifestations of Islamic extremism that have evolved from Bin Laden’s. This time it was a vicious Sunni offshoot calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and referred to variously as ISIS, ISIL or simply I.S. The core of Mr. Obama’s announcement was that American airstrikes against ISIS would be extended to its bases in Syria.
Mr. Obama, who tried so hard to end American military involvement in the Middle East and to avoid it in Syria, did his best to differentiate the open-ended air operation from the two ground wars launched by Mr. Bush, repeatedly promising that there would be no American boots on the ground, only airstrikes. Still, the echoes were unmistakable as the president declared, “We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.”
Mr. Obama arguably had little choice but to attack ISIS after the group emerged from its strongholds in Syria earlier this year to seize extensive territory in Iraq, and after it posted videos of the decapitation of two captured American journalists.
Members of the Senate and the House generally supported Mr. Obama, but most legislators seemed willing to let the White House order the airstrikes without congressional approval for fear that supporting — or opposing — the operation could hurt their chances in the midterm elections, given a public that seemed to support going after ISIS but was otherwise down on the president and his foreign policy.
In the Middle East, the same governments that grumbled in 2011 as the United States left Iraq now tried to avoid specific commitments to the latest American intervention. Since 9/11, the Middle East has been in almost constant upheaval and crisis, including during the Arab Spring revolts that initially promised so much and that have served largely to exacerbate its political and sectarian divides — and to deepen mistrust of the United States. Once among America’s staunchest allies, Egypt said it was already busy fighting “terrorism,” meaning the Muslim Brotherhood, while Jordan said it was focusing on the reconstruction of Gaza after the Israeli bombardment. Saudi Arabia, however, said it would host training facilities for moderate Syrian opposition forces.
It was not that anyone much supported ISIS, a movement so vicious that it was renounced by the Qaeda mainstream. But the American decision to go after the group seemed to touch on all the overlapping conflicts and contradictions of the Middle East.
ISIS had taken shape in the multi-sided fight against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, so for the United States to fight ISIS was in effect to come to the help of a murderous tyrant. Not surprisingly, Syria was one of the few Arab states to openly welcome the American attacks on ISIS. Though the White House strategy also called for training “moderate” groups in the Syrian civil war, previous efforts by the United States have failed to create a unified or effective opposition coalition. And for the Arab leaders, there was now the fear that American involvement would only increase the standing of ISIS among would-be jihadists, just as ISIS itself was spawned by American attacks on its predecessors.
European allies dutifully voiced support for the American campaign, but Germany and Britain were quick to declare that they would not join in the airstrikes. Mr. Putin, of course, was no longer an ally or partner.
At least the cease-fire agreement in Ukraine seemed to be holding. And though a package of new American and European sanctions went into effect on Friday, there was already talk in European capitals that they could be softened if Russia played a constructive role in seeking a solution to the conflict.
Serge Schmemann is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times.