A Year After the Terrorist Attacks on the United States

Where Are We Now?

Afghan fighter watches U.S. warplanes bomb suspected Al-Qaeda positions
An Afghan militant watches U.S. warplanes bomb suspected Al-Qaeda hideouts (Photo: AFP).

The “war on terror” has been going on for a year now, but one question still hangs in the air: Will the terrorists strike again? Shock and the last rubble from the fallen skyscrapers have slowly become a memory; the Pentagon has a new facade. The Taliban regime collapsed almost as quickly as the buildings did. We haven’t seen a reprise of Sept. 11. So far, so good. This doesn’t mean, however, that the West is now any safer.

The Americans did not sap the fighting capacity of Al-Qaeda, nor do they have [Osama] Bin Laden’s body. At the same time, the world has changed so suddenly that politicians may envy the brief disorder of the 1990s and the black-and-white days of the Cold War enjoyed by their predecessors. As soon as we attempt to put down the words and deeds of the past year, the future, like a deck of cards, is stirred before us in the shadow of disorder.

If August 1914 is considered the beginning of the 20th century, then Sept. 11 marked the beginning of the 21st century. The shock from the blows… has dissipated. It might be a false sense of relief. The United States wanted to destroy Al-Qaeda, but instead it conquered Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda lost its safe haven, but no one knows to what extent it has been destroyed or incapacitated. It isn’t even known whether Osama bin Laden is alive. A year after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Osama bin Laden is still the most wanted man in the world. As time passed, self-confidence gave way to reality….

What sounded like a resolution a year ago sounds today like the scraping of a blind man’s cane. Al-Qaeda has the advantage. The Americans know how many enemies they killed or took prisoner. But they don’t know how many remain or how many are capable of new action. The West achieved its greatest victory elsewhere. It was overshadowed by the spectacular war in the Afghan mountains. The most important battle, however, was fought in the mosques of Egypt, in the markets of Yemen, in the streets of Karachi, and in the cafes of Riyadh. The Muslim world let Bin Laden down. It turned out that the explosives with which he was hoping to set off an Islamic uprising were hopelessly inadequate.

This victory involves a greater prize than Bin Laden’s scalp. It represents a significant piece of a puzzle, from which, in the past year, we have gained a sense of the new, emerging world. We heard about the change on Sept. 11. Night fell on a changed world, George Bush said. He was only partly right. During the entire 1990s, there was a movement toward this change, but Sept. 11 gave it the jet-like boost of hijacked airplanes.

America itself has undergone a transformation, and this has changed everything. There was talk of such a change after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the “lonely superpower,” which imposes a Pax Americana or American domination. But the prophecy was not fulfilled. The United States had no appetite for such a mission; it had no target on which to concentrate its power. Hence, from the fall of the Iron Curtain until last year, the main characteristic of its foreign policy was a lack of calculation. An early hour on Sept. 11, however, sufficed to turn things around. It is now clear that on that day, America’s view of its surroundings changed. Until then, the “world” was basically an insignificant, harmless place on the other side of the ocean. When there proved to be a mortal threat, American power found its target.

This changed the entire international system. Pax Americana began to function, and now we have an asymmetrical world dominated by a single superpower, which considers its main mission—not to say obsession—to be the elimination of terror. Thus, at the summit of an asymmetrical world is the asymmetrical policy of the United States. The United States has elevated Al-Qaeda above all other international problems; in doing so, it has paralyzed the international system, because other urgent problems have been pushed to the background.

Today, the United States judges states according to their cooperation in the war on terrorism. For most governments, therefore, the main problem is to find the appropriate position on the war. Everywhere, there is an effort to come to terms with an unusually purposeful, focused, and assertive America. This can be quite difficult. Russia, a newly discovered ally, is forced to give up its business interests in Iran and must endure U.S. entry into its sphere of influence in Central Asia—without any kind of compensation.

But the greatest problem has been in relations between the United States and Western Europe. The latter views the list of world interests in a different way from the United States. For the allies, the Atlantic Ocean has never been as wide as it is now. But there’s more to it than that. The U.S. defense doctrine, which emerged during the Cold War, has itself changed. New threats demand new thinking, Bush emphasized, echoing [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev. A deterrent—that is, the promise of a crushing response—means nothing for terrorists, who form a supranational shadow empire, a virtual state of sorts. Hence, instead of deterrence we now have the doctrine of the preventative strike with which Iraq is threatened. If someone thinks that the Cold War and the subsequent transition period have only now been buried by a change in doctrine, that person is correct. If Bin Laden is alive, he might be surprised at how everything has changed—and not to his benefit.