Opinion The Demoralized Nation

The battles waged by the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are further proof of the fact that, on the whole, the country has fought the wrong wars in the wrong places at the wrong time ever since World War II. The Iraq war was like a last gasp. Now Obama is left to administer the twilight years of American hegemony.
Former US President George W. Bush declaring "mission accomplished" in Iraq in May 2003.

Former US President George W. Bush declaring "mission accomplished" in Iraq in May 2003.


I was really looking forward to Sept. 11. I had been in the United States for three weeks and I had fulfilled my dream, even if I wasn't so young anymore, of becoming a correspondent in the capital city of the global superpower. My pictures hadn't even been hung on the walls of our office yet, and the television didn't even work, which would prove to be a problem that day. The sun was shining and it was a fantastic late summer day. How gorgeous, how nice, and what a boost to the spirits.

The whole city and country was anxious to see if he would actually do it. He, of course, was the biggest basketball player of all time. At 38, Michael Jordan was planning to announce his second comeback. Like me, Jordan lived in Washington. He had called a press conference and he was going to go through with it. After all, at the time, the world was still in order.


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Foto: AP

I also knew a little bit about Osama bin Laden, but I had resisted diving deeper into his biography. Years earlier, I had written quite a bit about terrorism, about German terrorism, a bleak part of my job. I wrote about evil, fanatical people who were willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to cause the deaths of as many others as possible. I didn't want to have anything more to do with the subject. But how wrong I was.

The blues skies over New York and Washington. The airplanes. The crashes. People jumping out of the towers, their last act of freedom to choose a different way of death than immolation. The president, who grotesquely circled the skies in his jet, the only plane that was still allowed to fly. The transformation of George W. Bush from a daydreamer to a wartime president who led two wars -- one that was understandable and another that was built on lies. Totalitarian islands, built in the country perceived to be the world's most free.

Many Americans Dream of Ruling the World

America changed after 9/11. Sometimes I thought it had even become unrecognizable. But some things remain the same. Religious piety is still the root of American democracy. The country's thinking in terms of good and evil creates rifts that we aren't familiar with in Europe. War is perceived as a political instrument, and many Americans still dream of controlling the world -- and not just the neo-conservatives who assumed cultural hegemony after 9/11.

In my eyes, America had always been the country that brought democracy to my country, despite Hitler, despite Auschwitz and despite the Weimar Republic. It was a magnanimous victor in war and a generous global power. It could have pursued a different course in 1945 than it did. It could have repeated, for example, what it did in 1918.

But my view of America changed through the experiences of 9/11. America remains for me an unbelievably beautiful country where the smartest people that one can find on God's earth live and teach. And it still holds true that this superpower saved Europe from self-destruction during the two world wars. But what became of it after 1945?

The Wrong Wars at the Wrong Time for the Wrong Reasons

After 1945, America has in truth only served to fight the wrong wars in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons. There were the two McCarthy-era wars in Korea and Vietnam. In Korea, the absolute rulers in the north and the south wanted to go to war with each other at any cost. Neither the Soviet Union nor America had any real desire to go back to war again only five years after the end of World War II, with their high losses and terrible experiences. The United States had disarmed and the army wasn't even capable of deployment. Nevertheless, it was attracted to a nice proxy war which the two global powers could use to take the measure of each other.

In the end, the cost in blood to the Americans was horribly high. The Soviet Union remained in the background, but the recently united China came to North Korea's aid. The reasoning at the time was the same as it is now. China wants, under all circumstances, to keep America far away from its borders, and that's why it allows the crazy Kim family to stay in power in its famine-stricken country.

Joseph McCarthy was a senator, but above all he was one of the worst anti-communist agitators one could possibly imagine. He was a fanatic who at the beginning of the 1950s was capable of whipping his country into a frenzy. After a few years he disappeared into obscurity, but he left a legacy -- including in US foreign policy. He was the antagonist to longtime diplomat George Kennan, a cool-headed pragmatist who recommended limiting communism's influence rather than waging wars. McCarthy won, Kennan lost.

Vietnam was merely an escalation of the Korean War. The domino theory held that Vietnam would fall first, followed by the rest of southeast Asia. It was teamed with a horrendous fear of the military power and the political foresight of those in power in Moscow and Beijing, who in reality were rivals. Afterwards, America became a demoralized country, driven crazy by a world that had stripped it of its hegemonic role.

America Falls into the Afghanistan Trap

Afghanistan also falls into this category of the wrong wars in the wrong places at the wrong time. It is a country that can be conquered but cannot be ruled. That's why the conquerors always withdraw eventually. When America fell into the trap, it joined a long list of countries that had made the same mistake.

Naturally the Iraq war made me take a different look at the earlier wars. The neo-cons wanted to do everything right and turned many things on their head. They thought the domino theory would play into their hands: First Iraq would become a democracy, then Syria, and so on. They wanted to change the world and actively impose their ideology on others. It was probably the last time the America would try to fulfil its historical mission of shaping the world according to its own vision of what it should be.

Today we know that it was the global power's last gasp. It was a major drama, and the turning point is now behind us. Barack Obama, and what a shame this is, is left with administering the country's gradual decline. He will go down in history as the president who ended two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. And probably also as the president who failed to lead his country out of recession (and was also prevented from doing so).

Sept. 11 and its aftermath have changed my view of America. They have been 10 strange years. The world has been transformed. The Arab revolts are happening for very different causes. Is the Arab Spring also the result of 9/11? We'll have to wait and see what we think, 10 years from now.

Gerhard Spörl is SPIEGEL's opinion editor.
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