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The Limits of American Might

Commentary, 2 September 2011
Americas, Terrorism
By Stephen Fidler, Wall Street Journal<br>Most people outside the US failed to understand how 9/11 was a shock to the American psyche. Now after two wars and a financial crisis the supremacy of US power is being questioned more than ever.

Most people outside the US failed to understand how 9/11 was a shock to the American psyche. Now after two wars and a financial crisis the supremacy of US power is being questioned more than ever.

By Stephen Fidler, Wall Street Journal

9/11 Retrospectives: This commentary is part of a series of contributions from eminent policymakers, academics and commentators offering their thoughts on the significance of 9/11.

Firemen 911On the afternoon of that cloudless Tuesday, in a newspaper office a few blocks from the White House, I looked out to see Washington's streets clogged with cars as office workers flooded out of the city. Hours before, the twin towers had collapsed in New York, felled by the impact of two fuel-laden airliners; a few miles away from me over the Potomac River, smoke was still rising from the Pentagon. It struck me then that the exodus was like people fleeing an alien invasion in a science fiction film made at the height of the 1950s 'Red Scare'.

That eerie sensation was reinforced when I left the office, final deadline passed, to see a friend who was travelling with visiting Australian prime minister, John Howard. The usually bustling city was empty except for small groups of armed national guardsmen standing on street corners beside green Humvees.

With the help of a press pass, I talked my way through the roadblocks to find my friend in a sort of upmarket soup kitchen in the basement of a luxury hotel, among a few other guests stranded by a ban on all commercial flights, being assisted by a handful of hotel staff.

A kind of normality slowly returned to the city, but on that day and in the days that followed, there was a sense of slightly suppressed hysteria, heightened in Washington by the anthrax mailings to Congress, which shared the same sorting centre as the Financial Times' office. The Stars and Stripes appeared on lawns, in house windows and fluttered from cars. Americans pulled together, but they were more mistrustful of others. 'Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists', President George W Bush said nine days later.

The attacks on the leading symbols of US economic and military power were viewed by many as a declaration of war, the equivalent of Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier. The widespread assumption that the oceans still protected Americans from harm had been undermined in a matter of minutes. It was clear there would be important consequences, though not yet what they would be.

Within a month or so, I was being told that Iraq was already in the sights of some in the Bush administration. This was a crisis not to be wasted on a country such as Afghanistan, notoriously poor in military targets as Donald Rumsfeld pointed out, but would provide an opportunity finally to topple the Butcher of Baghdad, whose demise had eluded the administration of the president's father.

I had written on 11 September 2001 that America's allies would hope the US response would be appropriate - a better word would have been proportionate. It gradually became clear that there was a gulf, as one US academic noted, between the view in the US that this was a world-changing event, and that of the rest of the world that this was an America-changing event. This was a deep division that opened up visibly in the months leading up to the war in Iraq. Its roots, I believed, lay in the shock to the American psyche that I had observed and that most people outside the country had failed to understand.

The consequent military action in Afghanistan and Iraq would emphasise the limitations of American power, not, as many thought at the time, its supremacy. Since then, the financial crisis that began in 2008 appears to have moved the centre of gravity of the world economy away from the West and to emerging powers such as China. The US, though still by far the most powerful country on Earth, appears less mighty than it was a decade ago. ¡

Stephen FidlerStephen Fidler is Brussels Editor of The Wall Street Journal. He was a Financial Times correspondent in Washington on 11 September 2001 covering foreign affairs.

This commentary first appeared in The RUSI Journal

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