“What were you doing on 9/11?” In a few days this question will dominate all conversations, at least in the Western world. The emotional centrality of this tragic day remains undeniable, but what about its strategic centrality?
Is 9/11 an historical turning point, one that ushered us into the 21st century just as the Sarajevo assassination in July 1914 marked our entrance into the 20th?
Contrary to what some analysts said in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, 9/11 did not signify the entrance into a world dominated by the “clash of civilizations” announced in the 1990s by Samuel Huntington.
With the benefit of hindsight, this unique human tragedy — nearly 3,000 people died in the Twin Towers of Manhattan — appears instead as the culminating point and the beginning of decline for Al Qaeda in its sectarian warfare against established Islam, as much as against the West.
Nor did 9/11 usher in, fortunately, a world dominated by “hyper-terrorism.” Terrorists inspired by Al Qaeda have continued to strike from Spain to Britain and from India to Nigeria, just to mention a few of their targets.
But placed on the defensive by the mobilization of the world against them — a collaborative effort that really made the difference — they have never been able to repeat 9/11.
The death of Osama bin Laden in the midst of the Arab Spring — a revolution that began without the knowledge or involvement of fundamentalist Islamists — declared the defeat of the terrorists and the dawn of a post-Islamist world, even if Islamist parties do well in elections in countries like Egypt.
Of course terrorism can never be fully defeated. There will be more terror attacks. Al Qaeda may win a few more battles, but it has lost the war.
If 21st century historians will continue to regard 9/11 as a symbolic date, as a revealing accelerator of history, it will be less for the terror attacks themselves than for the American response.
Historians speak of the “law of unintended consequences.” The encounter between a few thousand confused voters in Florida in the presidential elections in 2000 and a dozen terrorists indoctrinated by a nihilist ideology accelerated and may even have modified the course of history.
The encounter between George W. Bush and 9/11 produced consequences that even the terrorists, in their darkest dreams, could not foresee. It is unlikely that Al Gore as president would have used 9/11 as a pretext to launch the war in Iraq, a war that has resulted in the doubling of the American debt.
It would be highly exaggerated to say that Bin Laden became the equivalent for the United States of what Ronald Reagan was for a declining Soviet empire — the prime mover of a ruinous and ill-considered rush forward (the armaments race for Moscow, and foreign adventures for Washington). And of course America today is not the equivalent of what the Soviet Union was yesterday — America’s internal contradictions have neither the depth nor the gravity of the Soviet Union’s.
Yet it is legitimate to ask whether the first decade of the 21st century has not been a “lost” one for the United States, and whether, in American eyes, the tree of fundamentalist terrorism did not hide the forest of the rise of Asia.
The purported American victory against fundamentalism has been a Pyrrhic one not only because of its financial, moral and diplomatic cost, but in its overreaction, in the waste of energy that could have been used far better in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
America probably underreacted to the terrorist threat before 9/11, and overreacted after the event.
So 9/11 is a historical moment, but not necessarily for the reasons that seemed to prevail at the time. It did not signal the arrival of a new world, but it has accelerated the end of the American Century.
By Dominique Moïsi, a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), and the author, most recently, of Un Juif improbable (Related)