As the U.S. considers military action in Syria, Derek Gregory, a professor at UBC’s Department of Geography, discusses how the world has changed since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Where does the “War on Terror” stand now, 12 years later?
The War on Terror morphed into the “Global War on Terror” then into the “Long War” and most recently in what the Obama administration calls “overseas contingency operations.” Some critics would no doubt say that these are nothing more than a series of desperate makeovers designed to sell the same idea, but since 9/11 the very meaning of war has changed.
After the two invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, both led by pulverizing air strikes, the emphasis on the ground switched to counterinsurgency for which the U.S. military was ill prepared. As the zone of conflict widened, the Bush administration declared that the main foreign policy challenge for the U.S. was how to conduct war “in countries we’re not at war with.” The Obama administration has accelerated that process with its strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, and its increasing reliance on stealth operations made possible by special forces, drones and cyber-attacks.
What is the lasting legacy of 9/11?
In many ways the U.S. squandered the legacy of 9/11. There was immense, worldwide sympathy for the loss of life in the Twin Towers – though we too often forget that the hijackers also attacked a strictly military target, the Pentagon. But the less-than-focused actions of the United States, combined with the cynical moves of other states that ramped up their own assaults on subject populations, discredited the counter-terrorist project.
Long-lasting legacies of 9/11 include the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people around the world from the wars spawned in its wake; the wholesale securitization of everyday life; and the resurgence of an unreflective xenophobia that reduces the vibrant cultures of the Middle East and North Africa to crude stereotypes.
There is now a healthy skepticism about governments’ willingness to tell the truth to their citizens, thanks to people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. There are also vital connections between the legacy of 9/11 and the Arab uprisings that started in 2010. For all their setbacks, it’s clear that democracy can and should take many forms and that it certainly can’t be imposed by fiat from the outside.