It is now seven years after 9/11. The attack designed to change the world has done so, but not in ways its planners predicted, or any Americans anticipated. The United States had been on autopilot in the 1990s, expecting the world to evolve on its own, believing that progress would arrive as the result of historic forces that required no leadership, demanded no sacrifice. But nature abhors a vacuum, and into the void stepped a small group of ultra-violent radicals with a program of their own. Through a combination of methodical planning, strategic audaciousness and a bit of luck, they pulled off an attack that brought about the new world in a matter of hours.
The 9/11 Commission concluded that our greatest failure in the period leading up to the attack was one of imagination. We had sacrificed the initiative to the terrorists, and they made the most of it. But no longer. The most important change wrought by 9/11 has been the willingness of the United States to take action. Some ambivalence has been replaced by vigilance. We push out, we take risks. Sometimes we pay a price for being so assertive, but we have not had to relive what al-Qaeda called “Holy Tuesday.”
How long will this continue? Success in the war on terror has bred a measure of complacency. The victories we have won are rarely reported in detail. But the heroes are still out there, doing their jobs every day. Much of the war on the terrorists is by necessity secret, but if kept under too many wraps the public might conclude nothing is going on at all. The costs of the war become more apparent than the benefits. Ironically the post-9/11 reforms are being undermined by their very effectiveness.
Compare for a moment to the seven year anniversary of Pearl Harbor. The world had also been transformed in ways that no-one expected, certainly not the Axis powers. Germany, Italy and Japan had been defeated decisively, their might destroyed, their governments overthrown, their territory occupied. The European empires were starting to come apart. The Soviet Union was asserting itself; 1948 saw the Berlin blockade, a red coup in Czechoslovakia, and the establishment of communist North Korea. More dramatic change was coming. The United States would only maintain a monopoly on the atomic bomb for another nine months. Mao’s victory in China would follow soon after. The outlines of the Cold War were becoming clear.
There had been so much change in the intervening seven years, so much pain and sacrifice, that Pearl Harbor had faded in the public mind. There was no official commemoration that year. But the significance of the day was not lost on everyone. Was this the world we had sacrificed so much to build? Were we slipping back into the mindset that made Pearl Harbor possible? An editorial in the Abilene Reporter-News observed, “We thought we had learned a lot of lessons from Pearl Harbor. We swore we would never again let our defenses be neglected. We were going to stay prepared forever. Yet the world is in the mess it’s in today, and our existence is threatened, because we couldn’t demobilize our strength fast enough to suit everybody.”
The Lowell, Massachusetts, Sun noted, “the United States knows, that it must remain strong and alert if it is going to prevent another Pearl Harbor in some other part of the world. It knows that it must keep its guard up in the interest of world peace and security. Once the people of the United States are lulled into a false state of security, the possibility of war comes closer. Just so long as this country keeps itself armed and poised for action, the likelihood of war in this generation fades into the background.”
These views are as salient today as they were 60 years ago. The threats facing the country evolve, but a posture of vigilance is always required. The war on terrorism continues even with the enemy greatly diminished. Al-Qaeda has met none of the strategic objectives bin Laden laid out in his 1996 declaration of war, and these days his movement is barely surviving. It says much that al-Qaeda’s leaders can never appear in public, can never show their faces anywhere in the world, without fear of being quickly captured or killed. Can a terrorist mastermind confined to mere survival in caves and basements in the back end of nowhere ever be said to be winning anything?
Yet other challenges are emerging. Russia, flush with its oil windfall, is flexing its muscles in the traditional way, through invasion and annexation. It seems so 20th Century, doesn’t it? Venezuela continues to expand its armed forces and influence. Iran seeks to join the nuclear club and achieve regional hegemony. China is planning a manned moon launch. In the next ten years the world will change at least as much as it has in the last ten, and the United States cannot afford to simply let changes happen.
Our country has the capacity to be the most dynamic, revolutionary, change-oriented force on earth, to constantly push out the boundaries and move into new frontiers undreamed of a generation ago. 9/11 is a reminder of a time when we had become complacent, when we had forgotten that global leadership is not a given, it is something that must be earned and continually justified. It is up to us to meet that challenge. As the Joplin, Missouri, Globe editorialized in 1948, “the dove of peace appears to have almost as precarious a resting place as it did seven years and a week ago today… Everything considered, the world must still wait for an anniversary of this day of infamy which will offer a really cheerful prospect in world affairs. But by the same, token, every citizen of the United States can mark the anniversary with renewed gratefulness that there is an America and that he is living in it.”
– NRO contributor James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington, senior fellow in national security at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point.