By Lionel Barber 

Most important words of past decade not ‘war on terror’ but ‘made in China’   


Tribute in light: two beams shine into the New York sky on the fifth anniversary of the Twin Towers attacks

On the morning of September 11, 2001, America’s prospects appeared as bright as the clear blue sky over Lower Manhattan. The price of Brent crude oil was $28 a barrel, the Federal government was running a budget surplus, the US economy was turning (albeit imperceptibly) after the dotcom crash. The most powerful nation on earth was at peace.  Ten years on, the oil price hovers around $115 a barrel, the US is projected to run a budget deficit for 2011 of $1,580bn, the largest in its history; the economy remains deeply troubled after the financial crash of 2008; and America’s military and intelligence services remain at war, battling insurgency and radical Islamic terrorism, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Niger and Yemen.  

Admiral Mike Mullen, outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has described the national debt as the greatest threat to US national security. Standard & Poor’s recent downgrade of America’s credit rating appears to confirm the superpower’s steady slippage. And while there is no linear narrative from the September 2001 attacks to America’s present economic plight, the inflation-adjusted cost of the ensuing “global war on terror” at more than $2,000bn amounts to twice the cost of the Vietnam war.  

President George W. Bush’s response to the assault on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon was to launch two wars of choice against Afghanistan and Iraq, a pugnacious unilateralism at the expense of alliances and international law, and a near evangelical promotion of liberal democracy in the Middle East. His administration’s hard-edged policies fractured alliances in Europe and triggered a sharp fall in America’s standing abroad.  

On the positive side of the ledger, America has so far escaped another terrorist attack on its own soil. Others have not been so fortunate. The bombings in Bali (2002), Madrid (2004), and London (2005) did not match the scale of September 11, but they claimed several hundred victims. Al-Qaeda is down but not entirely out. Dozens of computer disks recovered from Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, suggest the al-Qaeda leader, killed last May during a daring raid by US Navy Seals, was planning another spectacular outrage, perhaps to coincide with the September 11 anniversary this weekend.  

Moreover, this year’s Arab awakening has dispelled the notion that the Middle East – with the exception of Israel – is congenitally incapable of embracing democracy, One by one, the region’s autocrats, from Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, have been toppled by protesters demanding dignity, freedom and jobs. True, the fall of Muammer Gaddafi in Libya was precipitated by armed rebellions assisted by Nato warplanes; but President Bashar al-Assad of Syria may be the next leader to feel the hot breath of the Arab street. Read more…  

 As published in www.ft.com on September 5, 2011.


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