The coronavirus pandemic and a chapter of history that should have expired long ago
In a large windowless room in the bowels of the CIA, there is a sign that reads Every day is September 12th. When I first saw those words, during a tour of the agency’s operations, I felt conflicted. As a New Yorker who witnessed the 9/11 attacks, I once felt that way myself, but by the time I saw the sign, during the second term of the Obama administration, it seemed to ignore all the things that our country had gotten wrong because of that mindset. Now, as COVID-19 has transformed the way that Americans live, and threatens to claim exponentially more lives than any terrorist has, it is time to finally end the chapter of our history that began on September 11, 2001.
I say that as someone whose life was shaped by 9/11. I was a 24-year-old graduate student working on a city-council campaign when I watched the second plane curve into the World Trade Center and then saw the first tower collapse. Everything that I’d done in my life up to that point suddenly seemed trivial. I walked several miles to my apartment, as my fellow New Yorkers came out into the streets to be near one another (as we can’t be today). In the days that followed, my Queens neighborhood was the setting for a number of funerals for firemen. I will never forget the image of one devastated widow sitting in a lawn chair in her front yard, receiving condolences from a line of the toughest—but most broken—men I had ever seen.
Scared and angry, I was roused by President George W. Bush’s speech to a joint session of Congress a few days later, in which he confidently declared, “Our War on Terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” He further defined the nature of the conflict by saying, “Americans are asking, ‘Why do they hate us?’ They hate what we see right here in this chamber—a democratically elected government.” To have this unfathomable event framed in a way that fit neatly into the American narrative that I’d grown up with in the 1980s and ’90s was reassuring. After a decade defined by the triviality of Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the absence of a sense of mission, America had a new national purpose on par with the Cold War—another generational effort to make the world safe for democracy. I moved down to Washington, D.C., to be a part of that effort, in whatever way I could.
I got a job as a speechwriter for former Representative Lee Hamilton, a prototypical Washington wise man who had served in Congress for 34 years and ran the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank that doubled as the nation’s official memorial to our 28th president. Every day, I’d go to work in the Ronald Reagan Building, where a slab of the Berlin Wall reminded visitors of the arc of American triumph: from our origin as a superpower after Wilson’s victory in World War I through the collapse of Soviet communism, which made America the world’s only superpower—an epoch that still seemed to be in its early phase as our military toppled regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hamilton was appointed vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, so for two years, my life and work focused on the attacks that had compelled me to move to Washington. One of the tasks that Hamilton assigned me was to carefully review all of Osama bin Laden’s fatwas, and to examine al-Qaeda’s broader motivations. After reading bin Laden’s own words and studying the lives of the hijackers, I could no longer so easily square their motivations with what Bush had said after 9/11. The people who had attacked us didn’t seem focused on their hatred of America’s “democratically elected government.” What they hated was American foreign policy. What they sought was the overthrow of their own governments—chiefly, that of Saudi Arabia, where bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers came from, and that of Egypt, where the plot’s ringleader, Mohamed Atta, came from.
As the 9/11 Commission worked on issuing its report, the Iraq War was unraveling into an unmitigated disaster. The dissolution of the Iraqi army and state punctured my faith in American competence. The horror of Abu Ghraib punctured my sense of America’s moral authority. The obvious strategic victory for Iran punctured my confidence in the judgment of the national-security establishment. The reframing of the war as an effort to bring democracy to the Iraqi people punctured my trust in the words spoken by my leaders. The rhetoric that was once rousing now seemed cynical, a post facto justification for a catastrophic mistake. Democracy was being debased, not promoted.
I was angry, above all, at myself. I was a Democrat, but I had come to Washington to be part of the bipartisan response to 9/11—one that was going to cast the terrorists, in Bush’s words, into “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies,” alongside “fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism.” I had believed Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. I had cheered the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein. I had ignored obvious signs of overreach—our government opening a gulag at Guantanamo Bay and torturing people who might have been innocent. I had bought into the idea that Democrats needed to demonstrate their willingness to vigorously prosecute the “global war on terrorism,” even as it led us into war with a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. I had been naive and wrong, swept along by my own post-9/11 emotions and the assurances of my own government. Every day is September 12.
This is not to say that al-Qaeda wasn’t a threat, or that some good didn’t come out of America’s efforts to fight it. I am certain that attacks were stopped, that innocent lives were saved, and that most of the men and women who worked in counterterrorism were motivated by a sincere desire to make the United States—and the world—a safer place. But by the end of the Bush presidency, as the global economy collapsed around me, it was impossible to ignore the fact that America’s response to 9/11 had done more harm than good.
The 9/11 attacks continued to shape my life as I went to work for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. I would not have gotten that job without my association with the 9/11 Commission, which provided not only a credential but a relationship with Denis McDonough, who helped bring me onto the Obama campaign (and who later served as Obama’s second-term chief of staff).
Obama would not have been elected as the 44th president of the United States were it not for 9/11, which set in motion the chain of events that led to the Iraq War. His pre-invasion opposition to the war and pledge to end it provided his core contrast with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. And so just as 9/11 had compelled me to move to Washington, it catalyzed the events that led to me becoming a deputy national security adviser in the White House less than a decade later.
During Obama’s first year in office, an overwhelming—almost gravitational—set of forces kept pulling the young president deeper into the enormous array of post-9/11 conflicts. The use of armed drones picked up as he was taking office, and accelerated through 2009. Urgent warnings about al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia were drawing the U.S. further into those countries. The U.S. military pressed Obama to send some 60,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2009 alone—half of them as the result of a request that was sitting on the shelf when he took office, and the other half in a surge later that year. As essential as the surge seemed at the time, the costs now appear greater than the gains.
Working at the nexus of policy and politics, I became acutely aware of how much harder it is to end wars than to escalate them. The first time Obama suffered large defections of Democratic congressional support was over his effort to close Guantanamo Bay by relocating some prisoners to the United States. Obama’s clear desire to disentangle the United States from Iraq and to avoid other military engagements across the Middle East unnerved traditional U.S. allies, most prominently Saudi Arabia and Egypt, whose actions had been so central to the rise of al-Qaeda.
In his second term, Obama made a more concerted effort to reorient American foreign and national-security policy away from their post-9/11 focus on terrorism. Osama bin Laden had been taken out, leaving al-Qaeda as a shadow of its former self. The economy was growing. The American public was tiring of war, polling showed. In the White House, we had conversations about bringing an end to the “post-9/11 period”—conversations that led to an Obama speech at the National Defense University in 2013. “For over the last decade, our nation has spent over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home,” Obama said. He went on to call for an effort to repeal and replace the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that governed the Iraq War (an effort Congress never took up). “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” he said. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
The next three years felt like a tug-of-war between Obama’s desire to move into a new era and the pull of post-9/11 America. Obama began to draw the outlines of a new kind of foreign policy, with new priorities. The number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan fell to roughly 15,000—down from the 150,000 deployed there in 2009. The Iran deal avoided both a nuclear-armed Iran and another war in the Middle East. The Trans-Pacific Partnership built a coalition of nations into a potential trade pact and a strategic bloc to shape China’s rise. Fighting climate change was made a leading priority in nearly every bilateral and multilateral relationship that the United States had, leading ultimately to the Paris Agreement.
But Obama always had to balance his own priorities against the obligations he felt as a post-9/11 president. And when I look back at that time, many of the things I question—the continued use of drones at a certain scale, support for the Saudi war in Yemen, the protracted Afghan War—are not at all the things that we were vociferously criticized for; instead, most of the pressure dealt with why Obama wasn’t doing more in Iran, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, or the broader Middle East.
Indeed, politics and world events were like quicksand beneath our feet. Abroad, the Syrian civil war raged, Iraq teetered, and the emergence of ISIS—the successor to the al-Qaeda affiliate that took root in Iraq after our invasion—drew the United States back into a new counterterrorism campaign. At home, Republicans fixated on a toxic stew of issues with loose, if not specious, national-security connections: an insistence on declaring war against “radical Islam,” ceaseless investigations into Benghazi that spilled over into investigations of Hillary Clinton’s email practices, and demagoguing of refugee admissions and illegal immigration into the United States.
Donald Trump drafted on these dark currents as he launched his presidential campaign in 2015, tapping into America’s post-9/11 fears of a faceless “other” and the frustrations of Americans who had been promised great victories in Iraq and Afghanistan but found only quagmires. Instead of reckoning with the ways that we might have gotten the response to 9/11 wrong, Trump scapegoated enemies within: a black president, brown-skinned immigrants, Muslim refugees. Social media mainlined these fears into tens of millions of American households, and made us an easy mark for a Russian influence campaign.
In retrospect, the clearest harbinger from the Obama years of the future we’re now living in came in the fall of 2014. At a time when the American people were in a full-blown panic about ISIS, in the aftermath of the tragic beheading of four American hostages, we were confronted with the outbreak of an infectious disease, Ebola, that threatened to kill millions of people. By deploying the U.S. military to West Africa, recruiting dozens of countries to contribute health-care workers and equipment, and integrating America’s public-health and national-security infrastructure under unified direction, Obama was able to lead a coalition that stamped out the Ebola outbreak close to its source. It was a high-water mark of Obama’s international leadership.
But the episode haunted Obama. He regularly told foreign visitors that fears of a pandemic kept him awake at night. By the time Obama’s presidency ended, he had established a directorate on global-health security at the National Security Council, developed a playbook for a future administration to use to combat pandemics, and used a Cabinet-level homeland-security exercise with incoming Trump officials to put them through the decision-making process of responding to an outbreak. But the president coming into office was intent not on building on Obama’s legacy, but on dismantling it.
In 2019, I taught a course at UCLA on presidential rhetoric and American foreign policy. One of the speeches I had my students read was Bush’s address to Congress after 9/11, which still stands out as an exceptional piece of speechwriting. Just a couple of years younger than I was when I found those words so stirring, my students read the text as if it came from a different planet. Had the United States really made its entire national purpose a war against a group of terrorists? I asked them to list what they believed were the most pressing issues facing the country. Climate change topped the list. Economic inequality, student debt, structural racism, and a host of other issues filled it out. Not a single student mentioned terrorism. The generational appeal of Bernie Sanders—so out of step with the Democratic establishment I’d been a part of—was obvious in that room.
Trump likes to talk about ending America’s post-9/11 wars. But his latest defense budget is $112 billion higher than it was the year he took office. This additional spending appears guided by little beyond the president’s desire to declare that he’s investing more in the American military. The use of drones has increased. In Afghanistan and against ISIS, rules of engagement to limit civilian casualties have been relaxed. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was increased. With the notable exception of a bizarre and hasty retreat from our counter-ISIS mission in Syria, the post-9/11 resourcing of America’s military and intelligence infrastructure is more robust than ever. Obama’s efforts to formulate a post-9/11 foreign policy—anchored in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris Agreement—were scrapped. In their place came a constellation of policies under the “America first” banner—a mixture of restrictive immigration practices, scorn for traditional allies and international institutions, and a trade war with China.
Most acutely, Trump has fixated on Iran as a top priority. Since pulling out of the Iran deal, he has placed America on a constant precipice of war with the country. In addition to renewed sanctions, Trump has deployed nearly 20,000 additional U.S. troops to the Middle East, fueling Iranian provocations in response. (From the vantage point of quarantine, it’s hard to fathom that a couple of months ago we almost found ourselves in yet another post-9/11 war based on a presidential decision to kill someone.)
In his attitude and approach, Trump himself remains very much a president of the 9/11 era. He could not have become president without the architecture of right-wing media, chiefly Fox News, that blossomed after the attacks of 9/11. His personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani turned his laudable response to those attacks into a career of profiteering that led him all the way to Ukraine in pursuit of conspiracy theories about Joe Biden. Trump’s lie that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the fall of the Twin Towers completes the distortion of that day from a moment of American common purpose to an expression of white identity politics against an encroaching “other.”
Trump successfully harnessed anger, grievance, nationalism, and crude racism to win political support. But that approach is useless in responding to an actual crisis. In COVID-19, Trump faces an adversary that doesn’t care what it’s called, recognizes no border, and plays not by the rules of America’s broken politics but rather by the rules of science and objective reality.
Whereas the attacks on 9/11 took place in only three locations, COVID-19 has already affected nearly everyone in the country. Most of the U.S. is under social-distancing orders. Clearly, we are entering a period of severe trauma. Many—if not most—of our fellow citizens will get the disease. An unspeakable number of people may die. Social order and cohesion may be tested in unforeseen ways. The American economy will go through a shock likely to rival the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Depression. As with those events, the geopolitical fallout will be profound and enduring.
The first months of this crisis suggest that the world order that emerges on the other end is likely to be permanently altered. America’s response to 9/11 committed the familiar mistake of hastening a superpower’s decline through overreach; the Trump presidency, and our failure to respond effectively to COVID-19, show us the dangers of a world in which America makes no effort at leadership at all.
Enormous upheaval, however, also offers the opportunity for enormous change. And that is what America needs. This is not simply a matter of winding down the remaining 9/11 wars—we need a transformation of what has been our whole way of looking at the world since 9/11. Yes, we have a continued need to fight terrorist groups, but the greatest threats we face going forward will come not from groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS, but from climate change, pandemics, the risks posed by emerging technologies, and the spread of a blend of nationalist authoritarianism and Chinese-style totalitarianism that could transform the way human beings live in every country, including our own.
To meet those challenges, Americans will have to rethink the current orientation of our own government and society, and move past our post-9/11 mindset. Any serious effort must change our government’s spending priorities. It makes no sense that the Pentagon budget is 13 times larger than the entire international-affairs budget, which funds the State Department, USAID, and global programs at other agencies. The entire pandemic-preparedness budget is a rounding error compared with a trillion-dollar plan to modernize America’s nuclear-weapons infrastructure. Smart investments in research and development, including for agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, used to help make America a global leader in health, science, and technology; now we are behind countries such as Germany and South Korea—countries we helped rebuild or build during the Cold War—in developing and deploying COVID-19 tests.
We need to change the way we think about national security and foreign policy. In the Obama administration, efforts to ramp up climate-change and global-health security didn’t mesh well with America’s sprawling counterterrorism infrastructure, or with the interests of Congress. These defining challenges must become the focus of far more personnel—at the White House, the State Department, and other agencies—and they must galvanize partnerships outside government. Meanwhile, if we are to continue to deploy the rhetoric about democracy that we have used since 9/11 toward our adversaries, we and our allies must live up to it ourselves.
We need to change our attitude about government itself. The multidecade assault on the role of government in American life led to a Trump administration that disregards expertise and disdains career civil servants. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that government is essential; that public service is valuable; that facts and science should guide decisions; and that competence matters more than Washington’s endless gamesmanship.
Donald Trump is the embodiment of trends that have been advancing for a long time—the crudeness of our culture, the meanness of our politics, the disintegration of our media. All those trends have accelerated since September 11, 2001. As we go through an indeterminate period of time separated from the normal rhythm of our lives, Americans are going to be forced to consider what’s most important to them. The answer, so far, appears to be family, community, and a sense of decency—whether it’s in the heroism of health-care workers or in the video that your friend shared of some random act of kindness. Our politics and government should reflect that decency in the priorities we set at home and the actions we take abroad.
The years since 9/11 now make up nearly half of my life. My own journey through those years has taken me from smelling the acrid air where the World Trade Center used to be to the White House Situation Room to the social isolation of Los Angeles under a “safe at home” order. The other day, I took my daughters for a walk through the emptied streets. Our major cities now look like the set of some ominous disaster movie. My 5-year-old daughter picked up a dandelion. After she blew off its seeds, I asked what her wish was. “To make the coronavirus go away,” she said. What is she going to make of all this, I thought. And what are we going to do about it?
In that moment, it was no longer September 12.
All Rights Reserved for Ben Rhodes