The Al Qaida attacks of September 11, 2001, took place two weeks after I left my responsibilities at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, DC. I was appointed to the America desk of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara. It was just past lunchtime and our assistant deputy undersecretary Vefahan Ocak was not in the office.
I noticed people were getting up from their desks and started filling up the corridors. I heard someone saying that an aircraft had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. I quickly went into the room of Mr. Ocak and turn on the television. The CNN analysts were trying to make sense of live images with smoke pouring out of the North Tower. At exactly 09:03 am in New York I watched the second plane hitting the South Tower. I felt as if I was watching a Sci-Fi movie.
It was the first time after Pearl Harbor that the United States was under attack on its soil. In several hours, it was announced that Al Qaida was responsible for these vicious attacks. In those attacks, more than 300 people (19 of them were suicide attackers) were killed and more than 6000 wounded.
Like an alien attack
The attacks constituted a national trauma for Americans and a historical turning point. To fully grasp the magnitude of the trauma Americans suffered from 9/11, it is important to understand that they believed they were living in the safest place in the world. Such an attack was unthinkable, even if someone would try and undertake such evil.
The attacks were condemned globally as unacceptable acts of terror, but they were less unthinkable outside of the United States. Especially in the Middle East and in other volatile geographies people were losing their lives in terrorist attacks almost every day. The attacks were condemned by every civilized society, but they left lesser mark compared to the blow the American psyche suffered.
Perhaps if the 9/11 attacks had been carried out by aliens, the world outside the United States may have suffered similar trauma. But unlike Americans, most people outside of the US were already used to religious extremist terrorism. This background should help understand the psychology of Americans and why they set out to fulfill an impossible task; the absolute security of the United States. Americans demanded that every terrorist in the world would be annihilated and their supporters would be punished.
The end of history or the beginning of another?
This is why the United States decided to invade Afghanistan by allowing a haven to Al Qaida and its leader Usama Bin Laden. International law and civilized principles that could interfere with the effectiveness of the War-on-Terror were suspended.
After the defeat of the Soviet Union, political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous article, “The End of History”. He argued that liberal democracy and free-market ideology would now conquer the entire world. At the time, many analysts agreed.
We now know that the rule-based order and the ideals of liberal democracy did not conquer the world; and are now even under attack in their traditional strongholds of more than half of the global population ruled by demagogues and autocrats. Fukuyama is proven wrong.
The post-9/11 objective of “absolute security” for the United States will remain a utopian fantasy. In other words, the post-9/11 period that some analysts describe as the beginning of America’s modern history is better described as the end of the period in which the US leveraged its values and strengths to achieve legitimacy for its global hegemony.
Biden lost credibility
It would be a mistake to measure American power and its place in world politics solely through the success of its military endeavors. The fact that the United States can use such force so quickly and so widely is crucial in assessing American power. But its ability to maintain legitimacy when using that power is perhaps more relevant.
The breathtaking incompetence that the Biden administration displayed in its retreat from Afghanistan has struck a severe blow to America’s moral standing in the world, especially among friends and allies. Whether the Democrats will pay a political price for this domestically will be seen during the Congressional mid-term elections next year. But it is already painstakingly obvious that President Joe Biden – who came to power promising to rebuild the global world order and bring back universal values, fundamental freedoms, and justice for all – lost credibility internationally.
The policies of the Biden administration also damaged what little goodwill left in the transatlantic alliance. European leaders are openly questioning their confidence in Biden and are exploring ways to reduce their dependency on the United States in general. In addition to the unilateral decision to retreat without consulting the very allies Americans themselves convinced to participate in the Afghanistan mission, more than two dozen allied nations feel that American incompetence in implementing the decision and the lack of coordination has put their troops in hazard.
What is next?
It is important to note that this lack of confidence in American leadership will have serious policy consequences for the United States and will render the American people less safe. Perhaps most importantly, it will severely undermine American efforts to mobilize allies to help contain adversaries such as Russia, China, and Iran. Furthermore, the Afghanistan fiasco has globally emboldened populist politicians who campaign on “My country first” politics and less international cooperation.
It is time for all the leaders of the civilized world to remember that the lack of international cooperation and further disintegration of the global world order could lead to global chaos with unforeseen consequences for all of us. While it is clear that the United States is capable of making big mistakes, we should also remember the historical ability of American society to draw lessons from its mistakes. And for the world to get back on its feet, the leadership of other nations should also draw these lessons as Biden’s shoes will fit more feet than those of Biden alone.