Ten years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States continues to define its relationship with much of the rest of the world in terms of what used to be called the "war on terror," or the Long War. More than at almost any time since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy is defined by the use of military force and large-scale military deployments abroad, and it is conducted with near-total disregard for the sovereignty even of nominally allied states. The real but relatively small threat from al Qaeda has preoccupied the U.S. for a decade, and the responses to it have mostly drained our resources, marred our national reputation, and undermined our traditional alliances.
The war in Afghanistan remains the most visible legacy of the initial, correct response to the attacks, though our badly deteriorating relationship with Pakistan is the most significant legacy. It has become commonplace to observe that the stability of Pakistan is vastly more important than keeping the current Afghan government in power, but "Af-Pak" policy continues to destabilize Pakistan without much promise of securing Afghanistan once U.S. forces have left. Considering the ongoing damage to the relationship with Pakistan and the negligible security benefits for the U.S. from continuing the war in Afghanistan, it is well past time that U.S. withdrawal began.
The longer that the Long War drags on, the harder it will be to recognize the America that existed before the attacks ten years ago.
Turkey is often overlooked when considering the costs of the "war on terror," but in practical terms, there are few other relationships that have been more harmed by U.S. policies since 2001. While Iraq had nothing to do with al Qaeda, and invading Iraq served no national security interests, the decision to invade Iraq was framed and justified in terms of anti-terrorism and counter-proliferation, and the 9/11 attacks created a political atmosphere very favorable to any proposed military action. In spite of intense Turkish opposition, the invasion went ahead, and the Turkish public became deeply alienated from the U.S. The breakdown in U.S.-Turkish relations since 2003 has never fully been repaired, and it has negatively influenced Turkish reactions to all other U.S. policies in the region.
One of the most worrying ideas to come out of the last ten years is the conviction that the U.S. was somehow not involved enough in the affairs of other nations before 9/11, and the U.S. was too distracted from its role in the world until the attacks forced it to pay attention. Karl Rove perpetuated this falsehood during the 2008 campaign when he said, "Well, we were not involved in the world before 9/11, and look what happened." According to this view, the U.S. invited attack, not because of what it did, but because of its supposed passivity. In fact, the attacks occurred in part because of extensive, growing U.S. involvement in the Near East, which Washington then greatly increased with no intention of scaling back our involvement once the initial retaliation was finished. In many respects, the response to the 9/11 attacks has involved continuing and accelerating harmful trends in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy since at least the end of the Cold War.
On the domestic front, indefinite detention of suspects continues, and there has been and will be no meaningful accountability for those who authorized or engaged in the use of illegal methods of torture on detainees. The Obama administration has gone so far as to claim unreviewable authority to order the deaths of U.S. citizens implicated in terrorism. Due process and the rule of law have been badly compromised during the last ten years, and there appears to be no sign that this will change anytime soon.
Finally, the U.S. remains burdened by the idea of the Long War itself, a theoretically endless, global conflict that can never be concluded or definitively won. The costs to the U.S. from such a conflict cannot be measured only in lives and treasure. Open and accountable government cannot flourish in an era of perpetual warfare, and perpetual war is a boon to the expansion of state power. The longer that the Long War drags on, the harder it will be to recognize the America that existed before the attacks ten years ago.