Biden Marks Two Decades Since 9/11 With Shift in U.S. Priorities

U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of boarding Marine One to fly to New York. (Photographer: Ken Cedeno/UPI/Bloomberg)

Biden Marks Two Decades Since 9/11 With Shift in U.S. Priorities

Few Americans have been closer to the wars, legal debates and political discord that split America following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks than Joe Biden.

As a senior senator, Biden helped write legislation that shaped the U.S. response to the attacks. As vice president, he advised Barack Obama on the continued U.S. retaliation, including the 2011 raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. 

Now as president, Biden is trying to turn the page and reorient U.S. priorities -- an aspiration that led to the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last month.

Biden “is leading a fundamental shift in foreign policy and national security policy in moving toward a post-9/11 posture,” said Tom Donilon, a longtime friend and adviser to the president. “It’s a fundamental reorientation of national security and also of domestic investment challenges.”

Biden Marks Two Decades Since 9/11 With Shift in U.S. Priorities

On Saturday, Biden plans to visit all three sites of the Sept. 11 attacks -- Ground Zero in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. He’ll mark history as the leader of a ruptured country, far more divided than in the days after the towers fell, when Americans united behind then-President George W. Bush and his bullhorn vow that the attackers “will hear all of us soon.”

Biden was among them. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the early 2000s, he led debates over the military incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq and voted in support of both.

“We learned that unity is the one thing that must never break,” Biden said in a video released Friday. “Unity makes us who we are. America at its best. To me, that’s the central lesson of Sept. 11.”

But 20 years later, as he ordered the Afghanistan withdrawal, Biden said he saw no further benefit to America’s longest war.

“I’ve seen him evolve,” said California Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat who was the only member of Congress to vote against the Sept. 14, 2001 resolution that gave Bush broad authority to use military force against terrorists. 

Biden, she said, now understands “that it may not work, the military-first approach, whereas before, his voting record would show that that was a priority.”

‘Clumsy’ Withdrawal

Biden’s team had hoped the full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August would be a triumph ahead of the Sept. 11 anniversary. Instead, its messy execution -- more than 100 Americans and thousands of Afghan allies were left behind in the country, and 13 U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing by Islamic State-linked terrorists -- has left Biden with the lowest approval rating of his presidency.

“The problem we have is that there’s no pretty way to do something like that,” said Representative Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat whose endorsement was crucial to Biden winning the presidency. “And the vast majority of the American people think that we came out of there in a very clumsy way. So I suspect that hindsight being 20/20, the president might do it differently if he had to do it all over again. 

“But we needed to get out of a 20-year war that we should’ve gotten out of as soon as we got the perpetrator of 9/11,” he added.

As vice president to Obama, whose own swift political rise was fueled by his opposition to the Iraq War, there were signs that Biden’s views were shifting. He opposed Obama’s surge of troops into Afghanistan, returning from a 2009 visit especially pessimistic about the U.S. nation-building endeavor, and advised caution ahead of the Bin Laden raid but ultimately told Obama to trust his gut.

Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden aide and former senator, said that Biden’s skepticism of the U.S. capacity for nation-building began with the Vietnam war. He understood that “going in and trying to build a nation just wouldn’t work if you had corrupt leaders,” Kaufman said. 

After 9/11, he said, Biden had “a lot of anger at the idea of just the horror of so many people getting killed that way.” The future president wrote in his 2007 memoir that he had “never seen a single day change the stakes for the country as drastically as 9/11 had,” regarding the attacks as “an incredible opportunity to improve our internal security and solidify our relations around the world.” 

It’s questionable how closely the U.S. of 2021 resembles the nation Biden envisioned 14 years ago. The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump’s supporters revealed a domestic threat that many Democrats say now vastly overshadows foreign terrorists.

And underscoring the bitter political divide Biden now confronts, Washington will again be on edge a week from Saturday as some of Trump’s supporters return to the Capitol to protest criminal charges against people who participated in the riot the former president incited.

The Capitol Police plan to re-erect a protective fence around the building in anticipation of potential violence, the Associated Press reported Friday.

But Liz Sherwood-Randall, the White House homeland security adviser, said that it is “absolutely an achievement” of the U.S. government and its leaders “that we have not experienced another 9/11 attack on the homeland in 20 years.

“And certainly, that would not have been a foregone conclusion the day after 9/11 20 years ago,” she said.

Vestiges of the Attacks

The aftershocks of the Afghanistan withdrawal are just one way the U.S. government still grapples with Sept. 11. The Pentagon’s budget ballooned far faster than the rate of inflation to more than $700 billion annually. The largest overhaul of the federal government since the years immediately following World War II brought together immigration, transportation and law enforcement agencies at the Department of Homeland Security, a conglomeration that is periodically criticized as unwieldy. 

The detention center for foreign terrorists that Bush opened at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in early 2002 still holds 39 prisoners. This week, the pretrial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attacks, and four others resumed there after it was stalled by Covid-19 delays. 

The Patriot Act, passed 45 days after the attacks, added to the government’s surveillance capacities and authorized indefinite detention without trial of non-U.S. citizens. Even though Congress has not renewed all of its provisions or subsequent intelligence laws, the law’s “expansive interpretation and aggressive assertion of executive power both publicly and in secret” remains, said Alan Butler, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Biden has committed to continuing military strikes against foreign terrorists, including the offshoot of Islamic State that claimed credit for the bombing during the Afghanistan withdrawal. But he seeks to reframe American foreign policy objectives, shifting the national focus to major-nation competition and potential conflict with China and Russia.

“Terrorism will remain an issue both globally and domestically, increasingly,” said former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who served at the end of the Bush administration. “Geopolitical rivalry and climate and living in a world where we have epidemics are all going to be part of security. Our borders, our travel, everything is going to be affected by all of those things. And, of course, there’s cyber.”

Biden has long held that the country must be alert to a range of potential dangers, without focusing heavily on one adversary. Just before Sept. 11, he expressed concern that the Bush administration’s emphasis on building a missile defense system left the country vulnerable to terrorism.

In an appearance at the National Press Club on Sept. 10, 2001, he warned against diverting “all that money to address the least likely threat while the real threats come into this country in the hold of a ship, or the belly of a plane, or are smuggled into a city in the middle of the night in a vial in a backpack.” 

Jonah Blank, who advised Biden on South Asia policy at the time of the attacks, said that “he’s now back to an updated version of the September 10 mindset, which I think is probably where everybody is.” 

Blank recalled the focus of his work for the then-Foreign Affairs chairman quickly shifting from the India-Pakistan nuclear dispute to Afghanistan, after Sept. 11. He sees a through-line in his former boss’s approach to the use of military force over the past two decades.

“In periods when we’ve just seen military deployments go pretty awfully, he is more suspicious of it,” he said. “In periods where it’s going well, he’s more willing to consider more.”

Biden has “always been pretty focused on what does military action ‘X’ do in terms of preserving and defending the safety of the United States,” Blank added. The president has said that very question was at the heart of his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, which he called in an Aug. 31 speech a “forever war” where the U.S. “had no vital interest” beyond preventing future terrorist attacks.

“This is a new world,” he said. “The fundamental obligation of a president, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America, not against threats of 2001 but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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