Rupert Cornwell: A cataclysmic day eclipsed by America's military reaction

The Independent

Published: 11 September 2006

Was it really only five years ago today, on that clear blue early autumn morning on the United States' east coast, that 19 young Arab men seized four US airliners in the most audacious and most spectacular terrorist plot in modern history?

For the victims' relatives, and for others directly touched by its horror, the event is still immediate. For America's politicians, too, as the climax approaches to vital mid-term elections that will be fought in the shadow of that awful day, 9/11 has lost none of its potency.

Yesterday George Bush was visiting the 16-acre crater of Ground Zero - tidied up, it is true, but still a raw, gaping wound that evokes what was lost five years ago, far more powerfully than the most haunting monument erected since. In New York, at the Pentagon in Washington and in a woodland field in central Pennsylvania, ceremonies will be held. Tonight, the President is to deliver a 20-minute address to his country. His spokesman assures that it will a sombre reflection on the meaning of the anniversary, and on the "war on terror" unleashed by the attacks.

With mid-term elections less than two months off, Mr Bush will be sorely tempted to play politics with the occasion. But a sense of detachment is essential. For 9/11 is no longer news. It is history. In retrospect, it was not the start, but the climax, of the terrorists' war - a war that began with the 1993 attack on the same World Trade Centre in Manhattan, and that continued through the bombings of US bases in Saudi Arabia and two US embassies in east Africa, to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. The following year, having worked out what was structurally required to bring down the twin towers, al-Qa'ida duly did so.

The counter-offensive was swift and, at first, successful. Afghanistan was invaded and the Taliban - for a while at least - were routed, even if Osama bin Laden remained at large. At some point in 2002, the 9/11 era in reality ended. For reasons still to be explained, the initial "war on terror" metamorphosed into an unprovoked war against Iraq, that may in turn provoke - indeed may already have provoked - the "clash of civilisations" predicted by the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntingdon.

Any way you measure it, what has followed has eclipsed the original event.

Excluding the 19 hijackers, 2,973 people died in on 11 September 2001. The war in Iraq has now lasted longer than the American war against Hitler. Thus far, some 2,660 US soldiers have been killed there. Add the 272 servicemen lost in Afghanistan, and the total of US military losses is about the same as the civilian death toll on 9/11.

And that is but the start of it. Since 9/11, not a single American has died on US soil as a result of a terrorist incident. Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, anywhere from 41,639 to 46,307 Iraqi civilians have been killed on their soil, according to the most authoritative account available - by US fire, by insurgents and most of all by the sectarian violence now engulfing the country. In Afghanistan, the civilian toll even harder to quantify, anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000.

Iraq was not just a blunder, it was arguably the greatest US foreign policy blunder in a century, more consequential even than Vietnam. It distracted attention from Afghanistan. It squandered the world's goodwill after 9/11. It has weakened the US military. The false claims used to justify the invasion poisoned America's relations with its friends, and convinced its foes in the Muslim world that Washington was bent on a war with Islam. That trust may not be regained for a generation.

Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, the war's most aggressive cheerleader, appeared on NBC's Meet the Press yesterday. Remorselessly, Tim Russert, the interviewer, led him through the litany of absurdity: the Vice-President's claims that Saddam Hussein had WMD, that he was in cahoots with al-Qa'ida, that the US would be "greeted as liberators", that the insurgency in 2005 was "in its last throes". And so on. It was not so much atonement as black comedy.

Iraq exposed the US's brutal methods of detention. It helped create the vast pool of ill-will to the US among Muslims that is producing more than enough extremists to replace those killed or captured in Mr Bush's "war on terror". Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the secret CIA "black site" detention centres: for America's friends and foes these have merely been confirmation of US hypocrisy - preaching human rights and human dignity to everyone else, while trampling on them itself.

The White House tried to correct the damage last week, banning some of the most infamous techniques, and announcing that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other top 9/11 suspects would face trial. The public relations disaster has not been removed, nor reality altered. Read the fine print, and you see that the administration, in a crisis, can continue to do as it pleases.

Finally, there is the domestic political damage. On 14 September 2001, Mr Bush spoke movingly in Washington's National Cathedral of "the warm courage of national unity", echoing the word of Franklin Roosevelt in an earlier crisis. The "cold cowardice of national division" more like, five years on. Republicans and Democrats compete to show who's tougher on security. The former shamelessly play the "fear card" to save their skins in the mid-terms. The result is a paradox: with every year that goes by without attacks, Americans say they feel more, not less, threatened.

Whatever its citizens feel, America is safer. Not only have the post 9/11 measures to reinforce border security, coupled with the clampdown on terrorist financial networks (and dare one say it, the bitterly contested warrant-less wiretapping of US citizens) been effective. The absence also suggests that America, the nation of immigrants, is not home to the sort of disaffected, unassimilated Muslim community from which Britain's 7/7 London Underground bombers sprang.

The war in Iraq and the US's eternal tilt towards Israel in the original Middle East conflict may have spread the virus of militant Islamic fanaticism. But the ability of these scattered groups to mount a co-ordinated attack upon the US is minimal. The one group that was so organised, al-Qa'ida, has seen its operations damaged. The failure of the US to capture Osama bin Laden is an embarrassment. Yet the five-year-old video clip of Bin Laden released by al-Qa'ida to mark this anniversary could be taken as proof that its totemic leader is, if not dead, then in no position to rally his troops in real-time. Yet even the most nonsensical claims - for instance, the alleged plot by a group of deadbeats to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago - are treated as a imminent threat to the survival of the nation. Is it not time that the US government and media grew up about terrorism? Terrorism was not invented on 9/11.

Above all, the war on terror - the war that first demonstrated the vastness of US military power - has now exposed the limits of that power. The Vice-President and Donald Rumsfeld, the man with direct responsibility of the misbegotten Iraq war, have lost influence. Mr Bush, a diminished and deeply unpopular leader, has been forced to deal in terms of partners, alliances, even compromise.

The dead of 9/11 are lost for ever. So are the tens of thousands of civilian innocents killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But so too now may be Iraq itself. That invasion has also made a present of regional supremacy to Iran, and distracted America's attention from North Korea's nuclear programme. To cope with these challenges, the US must perforce rely in part on the good offices of China, whose rise has continued relentlessly while the "war on terror" has raged.

Even so Washington may yet opt to launch a third, more ambitious and risky war before Mr Bush leaves office in January 2009, one against Iran. In that sense, the 19 young men who hijacked four US commercial airliners five years ago, truly did change the world.