What If 9/11 Had Never Happened?

How different would the world be today if there had been no 9/11? What if the attacks had been foiled or bungled? One obvious answer is that Americans would probably care a lot less than they do about the rest of the world.

Back on the eve of destruction, in early September 2001, only 13 percent of Americans believed that the U.S. should be “the single world leader.” And fewer than a third favored higher defense spending. Now those figures are naturally much higher. Right?

Wrong. According to the most recent surveys, just 12 percent of Americans today think the U.S. should be the sole superpower—almost exactly the same proportion as on the eve of the 9/11 attacks. The share of Americans who want to see higher spending on national security is actually down to 26 percent. Paradoxically, Americans today seem less interested in the wider world than they were before the Twin Towers were felled.

In the past 10 years, the U.S. has directly or indirectly overthrown at least three governments in the Muslim world. Yet Americans today feel less powerful than they did then. In 2001 just over a quarter felt that the U.S. had “a less important role as a world leader compared to 10 years ago.” The latest figure is 41 percent.

Three explanations suggest themselves. First, wielding power abroad proved harder in practice than in neoconservative theory. Second, the financial crisis has dampened American spirits. A third possibility is that 9/11 simply didn’t have that big an impact on American opinion.

Yet to conclude that 9/11 didn’t change much is to misunderstand the historical process. The world is a seriously complex place, and a small change to the web of events can have huge consequences. Our difficulty is imagining what those consequences might have been.

So let’s play a game like the one my friends at the Muzzy Lane software company are currently designing, which has the working title “New World Disorder.” The game simulates the complex interaction of economics, politics, and international relations, allowing us to replay the past.

Let’s start in January 2001 and thwart the 9/11 attacks by having Condi Rice and Paul Wolfowitz heed Richard Clarke’s warnings about Al Qaeda. The game starts off well. Al -Qaeda is preemptively decapitated, its leaders rounded up in a series of covert operations and left to the tender mercies of their home governments. President Bush gets to focus on tax cuts, his first love.

But then, three years later, the murky details of this operation surface on the front page of The New York Times. John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for the presidency, denounces the “criminal conduct” of the Bush administration. Liberal pundits foam at the mouth. Ordinary Americans, unseared by 9/11, are shocked. Osama bin Laden issues a fierce denunciation of the U.S. from his Saudi prison cell. It triggers a wave of popular anger in the Middle East that topples any regime seen as too close to Washington.

The government of Qatar—gone. The government of Kuwait—gone. Above all, the government of Saudi Arabia—gone. True to form, the experts are soon all over network TV explaining how this fundamentalist backlash against the U.S.-backed oil monarchies had been years in the making (even if they hadn’t quite gotten around to predicting it beforehand). “Who lost the Middle East?” demands Kerry, pointing an accusing finger at George W. Bush. (Remember, prior to 9/11 Bush favored a reduction of U.S. overseas commitments.) The Democrats win the 2004 election, where-upon bin Laden’s new Islamic Republic of Arabia takes hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh…

In other words, if things had happened differently 10 years ago—if there had been no 9/11 and no retaliatory invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—we might be living through an Islamist Winter rather than an Arab Spring.

Replaying the history game without 9/11 suggests that, ironically, the real impact of the attacks was not on Americans but on the homelands of the attackers themselves.

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