Bush's Tragic Legacy: How 9/11 Triggered America's Decline

A Commentary by Gregor Peter Schmitz in Washington

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 led to a wave of solidarity with the US. But the superpower has lost that goodwill over the course of the wars it subsequently waged. Now America is mainly seen not as the victim of terrorism, but as a perpetrator of violence itself.

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The smoke was still rising from the rubble of the World Trade Center when Richard Armitage, at the time the US deputy secretary of state, spoke in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. "History begins today," he said.

In the coming decade, Armitage would turn out to be right -- except the politician could not have foreseen how tragic the history would be following the epochal event.

It is the history of the decline of the USA as a superpower.

Immediately before the attacks, this country was in full bloom -- like Rome at its peak, as TV host Joe Scarborough recalls today.

The Republican President George W. Bush had inherited a fat budget surplus from the Democrat Bill Clinton. In Kosovo, the US, which Madeleine Albright dubbed "the indispensable nation," had just shown the Europeans how it could resolve conflicts, even in their own backyard. Bill Gates and Microsoft were still cool.

Then came the planes, piloted by the followers of Osama bin Laden -- and for a brief moment, the superpower seemed even more powerful than ever. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had himself photographed donating blood for the victims. Even the French all suddenly wanted to be Americans. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder promised "unlimited solidarity."

What followed was an unlimited mistake. Bin Laden had hoped to entangle the Americans in bloody wars. How well he would succeed in doing this, he probably could not have imagined himself.

Bush's Tragic Legacy

America was trapped in Iraq for years, where a victory was a long time coming and was never a real one. It is currently trapped in Afghanistan, where victory no longer even seems possible. And it is trapped in an embrace with its ally Pakistan, which it does not trust and yet cannot release.

These are costly defeats for America and the rest of the world. According to a conservative estimate by Brown University, there have been almost 140,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. The massive retaliation cost more than $3 trillion (€2.2 trillion) -- dollars that would have been better used in America's schools or in the wallets of US citizens.

For a short time after the attacks, the country seemed united. Americans embraced each other. Even the cold city of New York suddenly seemed warm. But instead of cultivating public spirit, President Bush sought to find a pretext -- any pretext -- to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. This is his most tragic legacy, the fact that America can no longer even mourn its victims properly -- because Americans have long been not just victims, but also perpetrators.

But the decade of terror did in fact traumatize Americans and turn them into victims -- even those who only experienced the attacks on television.

A Country at War with Itself

Today, following all the Bush-era tax cuts, the US is a deeply divided country in social terms. The gap between rich and poor is almost as great as it was in the days of oil barons and steel magnates in the last century. Five percent of Americans buy almost 40 percent of all consumer goods sold in the country.

The country is at war with itself. It has a Congress where there is perpetual conflict between the right and the left -- and where they don't even want to talk to each other when the threat of a national bankruptcy looms.

Like no other country, the US became great because of its openness. Now, it has become distrustful, fearful and defensive -- against Muslims, against foreigners, against anyone who is different. Citizen militias hunt down illegal immigrants, and many people can still not accept having a black president in the White House.

"American exceptionalism" was always the US's trump card. The new candidates for the White House still refer to it in the election campaign, but it sounds like a hollow mantra -- one of those election promises that shouldn't be examined too closely.

Because if it was, then people might realize that many things in America are only exceptional because they are exceptionally bad. The country has lousy health statistics despite having one of the most expensive health care systems in the world. Then there are the billions wasted in the education system, not to mention the armaments madness -- the US spends almost as much on defense as the rest of the world put together.

And then there is the fixation on a financial system that rewards gamblers, where the country's most talented young people no longer work on developing new patents, but devote themselves to financial wizardry. Meanwhile, China and other emerging economies can happily concentrate on their own ascent.

Estranged from the Rest of the World

Where has that one-of-a-kind America gone? New York Magazine sums it up: "Ten years later, America now looks a bit more like other countries do -- our embrace of capitalism has grown more complicated, our class mobility less certain, our immigrants and our diversity less unique."

Even in foreign policy, the world power is no longer seen as the world's role model. "Leading from behind" is the maxim of the current president, Barack Obama. He says it out of necessity, because stateside a strange alliance has formed, between those on the fringes of mainstream politics both on the left and on the right.

They want to turn America into a tight-fisted world power. They only want one thing: US troops should come home, and then other countries should see how they fare. After all, the isolationists argue, these other countries don't understand America anyway.

The US has become estranged from the rest of the world. It is partly its own fault, but the rest of the world also shares some of the blame -- because many only see America as a perpetrator, and no longer regard it as a victim.

This was most evident on the day that bin Laden was killed. Americans cheered spontaneously on the streets when they heard the news. But many people in other parts of the world did not want to celebrate with them. They reacted with agitation to the openly flaunted joy over the terrorist's death. The alienation of the others often sounded patronizing and self-satisfied.

But it underlined the fact that the victims of the attacks were no longer in the foreground. Instead, the sins of the original victim were brought into focus -- America's sins. The superpower, to a large extent, only has itself to blame. But that is still sad nonetheless.

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1. America's Decline
Pokie 09/09/2011
DER SPIEGEL: 9/11 TRIGGERED AMERICA'S DECLINE TIME MAGAZINE:THE DECLINE AND FALL OF EUROPE... transatlantic competition is alive and well....albeit a little kinky! After the Nov 2012 election we will begin to fix the problems left by Obama, Bush43, Bush41, Clinton, Carter.... Where is REAGAN when we need him AGAIN?
2. 9-11
thomas smith 09/09/2011
It is amusing to me how the west and America in particular has such a short memory, for the last 300 years or so the west has been terrorizing the rest of the world. on every continent there is a legacy of western / christian military aggression, subjugation and exploitation;Kermit Roosevelt and AARAMCO IN THE MIDDLE EAST, South Africa, Rhodesia and Angolia the enslaved African diaspora in the new world, the French in Indochina,the British in Hong Kong, everyone screwing China, America screwing all of south america etc. etc.. Now, because they (America and the west) finally got a taste of what they have been dishing out to everyone else in the world, they are crying out to the havens about how awful and evil the attackers are!!!!! I am no historian , but even a superficial reading of western historical "involvement" in the rest of the world makes these cry's to the havens at a minimum hypocritical. signed : viet nam vetran 1968-1969
3. Violent America?
Kmetty 09/10/2011
This article bothers me! I know that Der Spiegel is a liberal left oriented news media, but on this 9/11 occasion they really came out with a piece that shows their true colors. Not only they did not show respect and/or sympathy for the 9/11 casualties, but they choose to spout the rhetoric of our pre and post 9/11 enemies....their prediction and their wish of the end of "American Dominance"....etc... Shame on Der Spiegel! A violent America? How about a Violent Muslim World, that declared war on the Western Civilization...including Europe? How would have Der Spiegel sounded after the defeat of Hitler? Maybe America was too Violent in the war against the Nazi Bastards also? Who started WW1? Germany/Austria Hungary...Who helped to win WW1? USA. Who started WW2? Germany. Who helped to win WW2? USA. Who started the Jihad? The Muslim Extremists. Who will win the Jihad??? Not Germany..that is for sure..Shame on you Der Spiegel!!! Maybe we should not have spent all those thousands of American lives to save Europe from the Nazis, if this is our reward!!! Or maybe Germany just needs another lesson in living in a brutal dictatorship?
4. The weekly anti-American sickness from derSpiegel
texasthomas 09/10/2011
Wow, twice this week we get an extra dose of Spiegel's hatred and resentment for America in almost identical opinions from Gerhard Spörl and Gregor Peter Schmitz this week. Sporl and Schmitz revel in this anniversary of 9/11 to delight and celebrate America's problems. === There is no doubt America's role in the world is changing as the rest of the world catches up to America in most ways. Few really dispute this and only the extremists (who Spiegel imagines control America) are really uncomfortable with this. But America's wealth (an American household is about 50% wealthier than a European household) and cultural leadership aren't going anywhere fast. === It's fun to check in on Spiegel to see how those who resent America perpetually pronounce it dead year after year - the appearance of dual articles by Sporl and Schmitz show the inane desperation that is an inspiration for us all. Jason
5. good riddance
symewinston 09/11/2011
This article is a succinct and clear explanation of the beginning of the fall of the American Empire. Bush, Cheney, and other evil neo-cons lied to the American people, who in the frenzy of post 9/11, were willing to believe any lies such as Iraq possessing WOMD and Saddam Hussein having links and giving support to Osama Bin Laden. The movie “Fair Game” is a good expose of the Bush’s administration twisting the arms of the intelligence services to provide it with an excuse for invading Iraq. The movie also shows how the government silences those who expose its lies and machinations But the neo-cons didn’t act in a political or moral vacuum. The Americans ( the majority) are by nature violent people and were not innocent victims. People seem to forget the human and physical devastation the Americans caused in South East Asia during the Vietnam War. Do I lament the fall of the American Empire ?not at all. All empires are evil and the American Empire was no exception
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