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How 9/11 Changed How Americans View The World


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Eleven years ago on this program, we used the deliberately provocative word empire to prompt a discussion of America's role in the world. The introduction I wrote on September 10th, 2001, reads in part: Perhaps the imperial shoe fits. After the Cold War, the United States is the dominant military, economic and cultural power on the planet. American politicians routinely describe the U.S. as the sole-remaining superpower, and very few see any reason to change that ever.

Twenty-four hours after we aired that broadcast, Americans looked at their role in the world very differently. As a survey released today by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs put it, in 2002, Americans were ready to allocate almost unlimited attention and resources to countering the terrorist threat.

This year's survey finds an American public sobered by a decade of war and a financial crisis. Fewer see terrorism as a critical threat. A declining majority favors an active role in world affairs. And we're much more skeptical of the use of force.

If your mind changed since 9/11, call and tell us why. The phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org.

Later in the program, one college in Texas made an unusual choice for this year's freshman read: "World War Z." Max Brooks will join us.

But first, America's role in the world. And we begin with former Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman, long a member and once chair of the House Intelligence Committee, now president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. They hosted a panel today, a joint production of the Wilson Center and NPR, to discuss the Chicago Council survey. She's just off that panel and joins us from a studio there at the Wilson Center.

Nice to have you back on the program with us.

JANE HARMAN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Also with us, historian and columnist Robert Kagan. His most recent book is "The World America Made." He is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We should note: an advisor to Mitt Romney. He's with us by phone from his home in Virginia.

Nice to have you back with us.

ROBERT KAGAN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And Jane Harman, I wonder, how have your thoughts on America's role in the world changed, given the experiences of the past decade?

HARMAN: Well, it's interesting. I brought that up in introducing today's panel at the Wilson Center. We had Tom Gjelten, NPR's Tom Gjelten, as moderator. We had former CIA Director Mike Hayden, former FBI/CIA analyst Phil Mudd and Jim Zogby, a very well-known pollster of Arab views of the world and a very interesting guy, talking about all this.

On 9/10/2001, by the way, I was having lunch with Jerry Bremer, L. Paul Bremer, a former ambassador who chaired a commission on which I served on terrorists, and then we predicted a major attack on U.S. soil. And that lunch was about why is no one taking us seriously, oh, by the way.

My views have changed a lot. September 11th, 2001, was, for me, personally - as someone who's been a political junkie for, you know, decades - probably the watershed experience. Here I was walking to the Capitol, to the Intelligence Rooms, then in the dome of the Capitol, which everyone thinks was the probable target of the fourth airplane that went down in Pennsylvania, and got a call from my office that Congress closed - terrible decision - and we learned the horrifying facts of these two attacks.

I could see, smell the smoke from the Pentagon. And then came a decade of trying to get the policies right. And I think we did some things right, and I think we did some things wrong. This Chicago Council poll, which we discussed in detail today, does show that the American people give us mixed grades.

And I think the American people, as usual, are right, and that there is war weariness, and there is a renewed appreciation - which I strongly share - for the use of our soft power to project a narrative in the world about the confluence - and I know Bob would be sympathetic to this, since he wrote that beautiful book, "The World America Made" - the confluence of our interests and our values.

That is under-explained, and if we could explain that better, I think we will make a better case for what world we want to be part of. It's not a world we will dominate in the way we used to, but it's a world, hopefully, that we will share with emerging democratic values and a growing number of people.

CONAN: Robert Kagan, the same question: How have your views changed since 9/11?

KAGAN: Well, I'm kind of a dinosaur, so my views don't - didn't change that much. I mean, obviously, we've had two unsuccessful military conflicts. The question that I have about American public opinion is: Are we in a fundamentally changed public opinion environment, or are we just going through what, really, if you look historically, is a consistent cycle?

There have been numerous periods throughout American history when we've gone from a period of global activism with a lot of public enthusiasm, World War I, for instance, which was immediately followed by tremendous disillusionment and a turning away from the world.

And if you look at the long history of polls since the Second World War, there have been ups and downs. There was a time - 1982, I'm looking at this poll - Americans were even less enthusiastic about having an active role then than they are today. But then it went up 10 points.

So, obviously, at this moment, in this recession, with, you know, Afghanistan not looking successful, Iraq a mixed picture, Americans are more pessimistic. If we get out of the recession, when we get out of the recession, I hope, when we face new crises, I think you could see American opinion changing again.

And one of the things that I note, interestingly, is that there is a majority of support for enforcing no-fly zones over Syria, which is a military action, which could have all kinds of consequences. So I take a more - I take a longer view of this, and I've seen - you know, you've seen, historically, Americans go up and down on this question. And I consider 61 percent supporting an active role in the world quite high and, in a way, you know, to be welcomed.

CONAN: But big majorities opposed to acting if, for example, China invades Taiwan, if North Korea attacks South Korea, split on Israel.

KAGAN: Yeah. But I'm not sure - I'd like to know compared to when. Was there a time when Americans were enthusiastic about going to war with China over Taiwan? It's possible. I haven't seen older polling about that.

And then, of course, there is the interesting phenomenon that we've seen over and over again, Americans saying, a majority of Americans saying they don't want to get into a certain conflict. The president, you know, often with the approval of Congress, not always, nevertheless taking Americans into that conflict and then seeing Americans rally to support that action.

Woodrow Wilson, in 1916, won his election saying he was the man who kept us out of war. Five months later, he led Americans into war with enormous public support. So I just - I'm wary of looking at these public opinion polls and thinking that somehow this is an attitude written in stone. These things are very changeable over time.

CONAN: Jane Harman, I'm sure the words Vietnam syndrome were mentioned on the panel today.

HARMAN: They weren't, actually, but again, those - that's a way that certainly shaped my view. I was in school at that time, and the country was convulsed about that war. And I think some of the wounds that the Democratic Party has tried to heal over the following 50 years were - or 40 years, I guess - came out of that. The party split into two foreign policy wings. One is more of a pacifist wing, and the other is the Scoop Jackson wing. That's the one I'm in, which believes in a muscular foreign policy that reflects our values and interests and has a more progressive view on social issues.

But, at any rate, just thinking about what Bob said, I don't think polling should shape our foreign policy, but it should influence our - it is a factor to look at. And the polls, what was interesting about the presentation by the Chicago Council today was they showed - they had PowerPoint and showed the graphs of public opinion about the wars and other things over the 11-year period since 9/11, And public opinion has shifted, certainly on Afghanistan and Iraq. It shifted earlier on Iraq than it did on Afghanistan, the wars. But looking forward, I think a factor that cannot be underestimated - and I'm sure Bob would agree with me - is presidential leadership.

The next president, whether it's Obama or Romney, I hope will help us with a narrative to understand our role in the world. President Obama, whether you agree with him or not, tried to sketch out a new narrative of our role - certainly in the greater Middle East - in his historic speech in Cairo in 2009. Most polling - so we learned today from Jim Zogby and others - showed a spike in popularity for America in that region after his speech.

Our popularity is now at an all-time low, or is certainly as low as it was under the Bush 43 administration, because people don't think he followed through on what he said he would do. Whether he could've, should've would've is something we don't have time to debate. But my point is I hope the president - much more so than anything that's been mentioned in this campaign - explains to us what our interests are in the greater world, what our - how it is that we can maintain our values, you know, the rule of law and a kind of generosity that we show to people everywhere and respect for democracies with a little D and so forth, how we can maintain our values as we assert our interests around the world. And I think we have a narrative deficit at the moment.

CONAN: Robert Kagan?

KAGAN: Oh, well, I entirely agree, and this has not been a great moment of political leadership. I think as - precisely as Jane says, people are spooked by the polls, although I don't think the polls are that spooky, but they're spooked by them, anyway, and don't want to talk about a big leadership role.

It's funny: President Obama is running on a kind of bifurcated campaign in terms of foreign policy, on the one hand emphasizing the fact that he killed Osama bin Laden, that he's taken an aggressive tack toward terrorism, that he's strengthened America's image in the world, and on the other - which points in one direction - but on the other saying it's time to start nation-building at home, which is an implicit suggestion that we've been too involved in the world.

For all we know, the American people like both elements of that argument. But I think that Jane is right. It's always important for presidents and political leaders to explain again to Americans why our role in the world matters, and not only for what we do for others, but also for how a certain kind of world order benefits us here at home. I think that's the great lesson of the 20th century, but it does need to be reiterated.

CONAN: To be fair, the poll also suggests the American public is not entirely in favor of Mitt Romney's more hawkish stance on several of these issues.

KAGAN: Well, I'm not surprised. I don't know exactly how hawkish he's really been. I mean, you know, there are those who would say that...

But more hawkish.

I'm not - the Obama people spend a lot of their time saying that Romney's not recommending anything different from what they're recommending on issues like Iran. I know that the Obama administration and political campaign has tried to paint Mitt Romney as a hawkish person. I think anybody who knows Mitt Romney knows that he's, in fact, a very thoughtful, reasonable man who's going to look at these problems with a fresh look, I think, and apply what he knows to dealing with them. And I don't expect him to be in any way rash, but really quite considerate in his approach to foreign policy. But...

CONAN: Romney advisor Robert Kagan, stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Nearly 11 years after the terror attacks on 9/11, America's attitudes have shifted. In the latest survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a majority of Americans continue to want the country to play a strong role in the world. They are, in the words of the survey, increasingly selective about how and where to engage in the world. You can find a link to that survey at or website, npr.org.

If your mind's been changed about America's role in the world since 9/11, call and tell us why. Phone number, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Our guests are Jane Harman, who served nine terms in Congress representing California's 36th District, now director, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and just off a panel this afternoon on the result of the Chicago Council survey.

Also with us, Robert Kagan, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is titled "The World America Made," also a foreign policy advisor to the Romney campaign.

Here's an email from Mitch in Miami Beach: My view of the world changed mostly due to living abroad in the Middle East since then.

I think a lot of American public will quickly realize that the world is full of people trying to raise their families, not terrorizing those around them. And I found it interesting looking at the results of the council's - Chicago Council's survey, Jane Harman, that terrorism, radical Islam are less urgent to most Americans than they were 10 years ago, I guess understandably.

HARMAN: Well, I think understandably in several ways. Let's understand that through very diligent efforts of our government, our intelligence agencies, our Homeland Security agency and law enforcement and an aware public, we have foiled a lot of the efforts to harm our country. That doesn't mean we're 100 percent safe or we ever can be 100 percent safe, but the lack of catastrophic attacks since 9/11 has perhaps lulled people into thinking it could not happen again.

It could happen again, but my argument, and I think the person whose question you read, his argument is the way to prevent that from happening is not just the use of hard power. I think that's what this poll is showing, that having a military response to some of this stuff maybe doesn't create more safety.

But having an intelligent, nuanced response, much of which is to make sure that people in the Middle East region understand what we stand for and what our interests are, going long on development and diplomacy, the soft power arguments, and winning the argument with the next generation that could strap on suicide vest or have - join the economy of some developing country that we hopefully help to succeed, those are ways in which I think we will continue to keep America safe.

And finally, enacting a new legal framework. I think we've desperately needed this, with policies both on the hard and soft side, designed to operate in the post-9/11 would be a very constructive thing to do. I would just hope that the next Congress and the next president will find ways to work together so this can happen.

CONAN: Robert Kagan, the analysts at the Chicago Center took great interest in different attitudes of millennials, younger people, sharply different from their older brethren.

KAGAN: Well, in what way?


CONAN: Well, in ways of being less interested in the use of force, more interested in, you know, much more towards that pacifist wing of the Democratic Party that perhaps Jane Harman was talking about. I'm not saying they're all Democrats. I'm just saying that's their attitude.

KAGAN: Well, I mean, it doesn't - I mean, obviously again it's not surprising our views of the world and of America's role in it are shaped very much by our experience, and the experience of many of these young people is that we have been in the longest war in our history, in Afghanistan, without yet achieving a positive result.

They've witnessed the difficulties in Iraq, which obviously no one would be eager to go rushing into again. On the other hand, this is also a generation, you know, I've taught many of these people and worked with them on a variety of issues. They also remember, many of them remember September 11th and remember the dangers that we do face.

And so, you know, we will see what happens the next time we face a great challenge in foreign policy. At the moment, as Jane says, we - you know, because we haven't been attacked again since September 11th, people are feeling like that's not the highest priority right now. But we can count on the fact, because history is unrelenting in this way, that there will be future challenges, whether from other countries or whether from terrorist organizations, and those challenges will also shape opinion again.

I just - I'm very wary of this particular moment, taking a snapshot of opinion of any age group and assuming that this is the new trend. It is a trend, but it will be changed again by events as they occur.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation, Camilla(ph) with us from Sebastopol in California.

CAMILLA: Hi, I'm calling because I agree with some earlier comments about how foreign policy intentions need to be stated more clearly. But, really, my opinion changed on the whole situation before and post our invasion of Iraq, because I think I genuinely wanted to trust our government's stated foreign policy intentions for regime change and getting Saddam out, but the use of hard power, I think, had ulterior motives and specifically resource grabs in Iraq and in the Middle East that weren't clearly stated.

And it just leaves me cynical that there are these big backstories that influence our foreign policy decisions that aren't being shared with the American public, and there aren't clear dialogue - there isn't clear dialogue on it. And so that's my comment, and I'll take my response off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Camilla, thanks very much, and the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction and people's - many people's belief, Jane Harman, that this was cherry-picked intelligence that was ginned up to provide a casus belli for a war that was really about other things.

HARMAN: Well, I served on the House Intelligence Committee at that time, and I monitored the intelligence carefully leading up to our going into Iraq, and I believed the case that there were weapons of mass destruction in the country, and there was intention to use them, both on the Iraqi people and - if they could be exported in clever ways, which we thought was possible - on us.

That case was wrong. Our intelligence was wrong, and we learned a very painful lesson, and I learned a very painful lesson, and one of the things that came out of this was the intelligence reform law of 2004, of which I was a principal author.

It was a bipartisan law signed by President Bush. There were some in the Bush administration strongly opposed, but we got it passed, and that created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who now is a joint commander across 16 agencies, and our intelligence information and operations, both the technical side and the human side, are substantially better.

To the caller, I do think there were people who may have exaggerated the material in various ways, but I am telling you as a lifelong Democrat with a big D and somebody who really, like you, cares about protecting our country, that I believed it at the time.

And I made the vote I made based on information that I thought was valid, and a lot of people were like me. So I certainly wasn't cherry-picking and distorting information. Unfortunately, the information that I had was wrong.

CONAN: Here's an email from Victor in Rockville, Illinois. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center reinforced my belief that our country should be more involved in the world and not allow our opponents to define us. Remind you of our political campaigns? I believe that if the United States required every citizen, according to his or her ability, to devote a period of public service, which would include the Peace Corps and other overseas service, as well as military and domestic social service, we would have greater understanding of the world as a whole, as well as our own world.

I learned that in advanced placement American history at Southwest High School in Kansas City. I've never forgotten it nor ceased to believe in it. Now let's see if we can get Dave on the line, Dave's with us from Cincinnati.

DAVE: Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi there, go ahead, please.

DAVE: My views have changed. I did three tours in Iraq. And so my views have changed over time just kind of realized some of the limitations of American power and realized that contrary to what gets portrayed on the news a lot of times, pro-democracy does not necessarily equal pro-America.

And then the other thing is I've learned that on the ground, things are much more nuanced in those countries than we really get an appreciation for with our sort of domestic (unintelligible) tendency to oversimplify things. And so I think that has changed my view a lot since September 11.

CONAN: And how long has it been since you've been home, Dave?

DAVE: I - my last tour in Iraq ended in 2010.

CONAN: So it's still pretty fresh.

DAVE: Yeah, yeah, you could say that.

CONAN: And are you still in the military?

DAVE: No, I'm not.

CONAN: And how are you doing?

DAVE: Pretty good.

CONAN: Good, I'm glad to hear that. Thanks so much for the call.

DAVE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Robert Kagan, there was a belief from a lot of people after the easy success of the first Gulf War that air power in particular had changed the equation, that we were able to do things that really we couldn't do.

KAGAN: Well, look, we always thought that - you know, when we've had successful uses of force, we always - and I certainly count myself guilty among this - in this way - tend to believe that it - that, you know, it'll always work. And, of course, it doesn't always work. There are many, many conflicts throughout American history, going all the way back to the beginning, where expectations were not ultimately met by successful conclusions as we had hoped.

And I think what the caller says, all the points the caller made are absolutely right. The world is a nuanced place. It's not about black hats and white hats all the time. There is complexity about using any tool of power, whether it's soft power or hard power. You can't necessarily get everything that you want.

That is the real world we operate in, however. And the question is having come to the realization that the world is a complex place, are we paralyzed by it, or are we - or we try to do better than we've done in the past at fulfilling our goals?

And I think sometimes, especially in the wake of, as we said, these two difficult wars, a kind of sense of futility can set in. And while the lessons we've learned are important - and those lessons are about limits - nevertheless that can't be a reason why we never take action again because then we really are ceding the world to others who are willing to take action. And I'm not sure that's going to be in our interest.

CONAN: Go ahead, Jane.

HARMAN: If I can make a few quick points on this, first of all the caller who made the point about public service is right. My generation is the Peace Corps generation. John Kennedy was the first president I was old enough to appreciate. And people who served in the Peace Corps all over the world still populate the Wilson Center and have amazing commitments to improving societies and deep understanding, nuanced understanding of the world.

And I think it would be a very good thing if we had a public service requirement, the military being one form, but other, you know, education organizations, the Peace Corps and other things, to get all American citizens, as a requirement of citizenship, exposed to the world in which we live. That's one.

Number two, playing Whac-A-Mole - today was a takedown of another top target in Yemen, unclear whether it was by a drone or what - is not going to win this for us. We have to win the argument, and we win the argument by living our values, by having a set of laws that clearly comport with our values and by investing in development and diplomacy and acts of service, non-governmental, around the world, which a lot of people do.

And finally, number three, the threats and the actors are completely different. This is a point Mike Hayden, former CIA director, General Mike Hayden, made today. Nation-states are not always the good guys or the bad guys. A lot of the enemies that the United States has - take al-Qaida- are not a state. They are a rogue organization that is, international now in its breadth but that operates horizontally without permission of states. Some states harbor it, but basically it's not a state actor. And we have to think differently.

The Geneva Conventions, for example, which were the rules of law until we had this kind of new war and terrorism as a kind of dominant, asymmetrical attack as a kind of dominant tactic in this form of new war, may not fit these problems. I'm not saying we shouldn't have conventions, but I'm saying we need to update all this to fit the problems that we have. The 9/11 - post-9/11 world is a different world.

CONAN: Former member of Congress Jane Harman, former chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Also with us, Robert Kagan, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, author most recently of "The World America Made." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email question from John(ph) in Salt Lake Tahoe in California: Are Ms. Harman or Mr. Kagan willing to concede that a decade of misguided wars and drone strikes, which have killed tens of thousands, have generated legions of new enemies and made us less safe and respected as a nation?

KAGAN: Well, I'm not willing to concede that. And I think that if you look at the assessment of the Obama administration and intelligence services in general, we seem to have been doing a pretty good job of not only knocking off al-Qaida operatives, but also preventing them from finding a safe place from which to act against us.

It was a real article of faith during the Bush years that everything the Bush administration was doing was creating legions of new terrorists, but I don't see that that's been what's happening. Obviously, these terrorists are able to be flexible. They move from one place to another. But I don't think that those actions have been counterproductive in the way that the questioner is suggesting.

And as far as America's standing in the world is concerned, I think one of the striking things about recent years has been the degree to which so many nations around the world are once again looking to the United States for protection, for security, for alliance. That's certainly true of the nations of East Asia who are worried about China and look to the United States for reassurance.

It's true of the nations of the Middle East who are looking to the United States for reassurance against Iran. It's true of nations in Eastern Europe who are worried about Russia. This is the role the United States has played consistently since World War II, and it's striking to me the degree to which so many nations around the world still want it to play that role.

CONAN: Jane Harman, we just have a couple of minutes left.

HARMAN: Yes. Well, I support the use of drones consistent with a very tight legal framework. And I was very impressed when John Brennan, who is the president's senior counterterrorism official in the White House, asked to come over to the Wilson Center in April to explain the framework we use around our drone strikes. It is not the case that tens of thousands of people have been killed by drones. It is the case...

CONAN: He said - he included the wars as well.

HARMAN: I see. Well, that's fair then. But at least focused on drones, that they are very carefully targeted. I'm one who knows a lot about this, and it is classified, but my takeaway is that this is a - an extremely lethal weapon that we should and do use extremely carefully. Having said that, though, I think the tenor of this conversation - I think Bob and I agree even though we belong to different parties and we may have somewhat different philosophies - that this is a piece of a larger challenge. And as he just said, America's role in the world is well regarded. There are many things we do that are extremely generous. I forgot to mention our aid in the case of natural disasters. Americans are always there whether it's, you know, the floods in Pakistan or the earthquakes in Iran, which we did do, and the catastrophes in Thailand and in Indonesia and so forth.

HARMAN: We're always there helping, and a lot of our military can be used to stage this form of civilian help. So it's a mixed bag. We've learned a lot. We have more to learn. But I think it is important to focus on the fact that tomorrow, Tuesday, the same day that 9/11 was, will be a crisp and clear day, and hopefully the challenges to America will look a lot brighter after the 9 o'clock hour than they did 11 years ago.

CONAN: Jane Harman, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

HARMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Robert Kagan, nice to talk to you again.

KAGAN: Thank you. Same here.

CONAN: Coming up, we're going to be talking about freshman reads and "World War Z." This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.