On Sept. 10, 2001, the United States of America stood at the pinnacle of its power and prestige. Even Rome, in its heyday, did not have the economic and military dominance over rival nations that America possessed. “Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power,” Paul Kennedy, the historian from Yale (who a decade before had predicted a declining United States) wrote around that time. “The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap. Britain’s army was much smaller than European armies, and even the Royal Navy was equal only to the next two navies—right now all the other navies in the world combined could not dent American maritime supremacy. Charlemagne’s empire was merely western European in its reach. The Roman Empire stretched farther afield, but there was another great empire in Persia, and a larger one in China. There is, therefore, no comparison.”
The United States had a booming economy worth $10 trillion, a budget surplus, some of the strongest capital spending in decades, low unemployment, and little inflation. Its military machine could rain death on anyone from unreachable heights. B-2 pilots could take off from Missouri, bomb Belgrade, and be home for dinner.
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If anything, America had grown only more dominant since the end of the Cold War, and perhaps for the first time in its history the nation faced no existential threat. The collapse of the Soviet Union in late December 1991 introduced a promising era of “unipolarity,” and it was soon clear that U.S. power had no rival—even on the horizon. Japan, which only a few years before had been seen as the up-and-coming superpower, fell into deep recession as its “bubble economy” collapsed. Post-Soviet Russia imploded into an economy smaller than Portugal’s. China lumbered forward, a nation in transition, but it remained a developing country with its future as a putative superpower still far off.
Today, things feel almost inverted. The events of Sept. 11 have ultimately left us, 10 years later, with an economy and a strategic stature that no longer seem terribly awesome. America is still the sole superpower, but our invincible military is bogged down in two wasting wars, and poorly armed insurgents seem not to fear us. The rest of the world, beginning with China and Japan, now underwrites our vast indebtedness with barely concealed impatience. We are a nation downgraded by Wall Street, disrespected abroad, and defied even now by al-Qaida, whose leader was killed only recently after spending most of the decade taunting Washington. How did this happen?
Scholars and pundits have offered up a number of explanations in recent years for what they like to call “American decline”: historical inevitability; the rise of the rest. But the most persuasive answer is, in a word, incompetence. The failure of leadership in Washington is so profound that it must rank not only with the worst failures of American presidents, but also with the worst failures of great-power leaders at any time in history—the kind that can turn great powers into lesser ones. “A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests,” historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in her 1984 book, The March of Folly, which presented case studies of some of these episodes: Montezuma’s unilateral surrender of his Aztec empire to the Spanish; George III’s bungled handling of the American colonies; the foolish overreaching of America in Vietnam. “We all know, from unending repetitions of Lord Acton’s dictum, that power corrupts,” Tuchman continued. “We are less aware that it breeds folly; that the power to command frequently causes failure to think.”
It is hard to escape the conclusion that al-Qaida outthought America—at least in provoking Washington to make the wrong strategic choices at the outset of the decade. That meant, in particular, all but abandoning the narrower fight in Afghanistan, al-Qaida’s true home, for an unrelated and much larger war in Iraq that we started under false pretenses—which is probably the only way a small, fractious group could elude a superpower for so long. If al-Qaida’s rhetoric is to be believed, one of its main goals was to “bleed” and “bankrupt” America—Osama bin Laden’s own words—through a long and draining conflict, as the fighters did to the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. “The jihadis expected the United States, like the Soviet Union, to be a clumsy opponent,” Wall Street Journal reporter Alan Cullison wrote in The Atlantic in September 2004, quoting a remarkable series of letters he found by accident on an old computer left behind by al-Qaida’s then-second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri, in Afghanistan.
The jihadis were right. America failed, strategically and economically. It failed to anticipate the enormous cost of going into Iraq and of losing focus in Afghanistan. It failed to find a way to pay for the wars that it launched. It failed with its feckless disregard for how all that debt was being amassed in the financial system to pay for war and other expensive government programs, such as the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit. And finally, after all the other reasons for going to war in Iraq had fallen apart—weapons of mass destruction, links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida—the final rationale, establishing democracy in Iraq as a model for the Arab world, has proved largely irrelevant as well: The Arab Spring occurred spontaneously, with no known link to events in Iraq.
This article appears in the September 3, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.