How the attacks of 9/11 reshaped America’s role in the world

This week PBS NewsHour has been marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by exploring how they have impacted the U.S. at home and abroad. Judy Woodruff leads our latest conversation on the ways the 9/11 attacks shaped American foreign policy over the last two decades.

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  • John Yang:

    Tonight, we have been marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Tonight, we look at how that day and its aftermath reconfigured America's role in the world.

    Judy Woodruff leads the conversation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John, we want to step back a moment to ask whether the United States made the right decisions in response to the attacks, and how, 20 years later, those decisions have changed the way the United States fits into the international order.

    For that, we get three views.

    Robert Grenier had a 27-year career at the CIA and was the station chief in Pakistan and Afghanistan on 9/11. He played a key role in the U.S. ouster of the Taliban in 2001. He was also director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center from 2004 to 2006. He's now a consultant.

    Kori Schake worked on the National Security Council staff and then at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. She's now director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. And Frank Wisner had a many-decades-long career in the Foreign Service. He was U.S. ambassador to India and to Egypt, among other places. In the 1960s, he worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Vietnam. He's currently a foreign affairs adviser to the law firm Squire Patton Boggs.

    And we thank you, all three, for being back with us at the "NewsHour."

    Robert Grenier, let me start with you.

    As we mentioned, you were in Southwest Asia when 9/11 happened. You were there watching this unfold. Looking back, did the U.S. make the right moves at that time?

  • Robert Grenier, Former CIA Official:

    I think we did.

    We often talk about the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, it really wasn't an invasion at all. We only had a few hundred Special Forces operators and intelligence officers who were on the ground in Afghanistan, very importantly, aided by U.S. close air support.

    But we came in very much with the idea that we needed to aid anti-Taliban Afghans to take charge of their own future. We departed from that model very seriously later on, but I think that we started out in the right way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Kori Schake, you, as I mentioned, joined the Bush administration, but it was after 9/11 when you did.

    Reflecting on that time, were the right decisions made?

  • Kori Schake, Former National Security Council Staff Director:

    You know, I think we made a lot of mistakes, actually, because we were acting out of fear.

    My strongest impression joining the Bush White House after September 11 was how fearful senior policy-makers were that they hadn't kept America safe. And because we didn't understand the dimensions and even the nature of the threat we were facing, they made choices that were large and imprecise.

    And only after we understood better what the nature of the terrorist threat was did we become more careful and more precise. And I think those early mistakes really cost us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And — but the initial mistake, the decision to go into Afghanistan, and then not long after into Iraq?

  • Kori Schake:

    I don't think the decision to go into Afghanistan was a mistake, but I do think the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake of historic proportions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we can talk about that a little more.

    Frank Wisner, with the benefit of hindsight, what does it look like to you, whether there was wisdom in what the United States was doing at the time?

    Frank Wisner, Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt: Well, I think that as we look in hindsight, you're quite right to put it in that perspective. And the two previous remarks underscore the fear that we entertained as a nation.

    But I think I'd add one other point that's worth reflecting on. And that is a sense of arrogance, a sense that the United States could do what we ended up doing in Afghanistan, a sense of hegemony on the world stage coming out of the Cold War.

    And that lack of restraint, lack of sense of having to work in an international system meant that we were unleashed to act on our own. And that led to many of the mistakes that followed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Robert Grenier, from your perspective, was there a sense at the time that the United — that there was almost a hubris, an overconfidence on the part of the United States?

  • Robert Grenier:

    I think, if we look at this over the span of 20 years, I very much agree with Ambassador Wisner that we — our reaction, ultimately, was disproportionate, that, rather than aiding Afghans in a direction that we hoped would redound to our own interests as well, we essentially took over the entire endeavor.

    Afghanistan became too important to leave to Afghans. And I think that what we tried to do involved expenditures, both in terms of money and blood, as well as risks that were ultimately greatly disproportionate to the actual national security interests involved.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Frank Wisner, I want to broaden this out to ask the three of you about what this experience of 9/11 has led to for the United States 20 years later.

    Is this — is our country still in the place that it — obviously, it's 20 years later, but in terms of its leadership in the world, role in the world, how we are seen by other countries, how do you reflect on that?

  • Frank Wisner:

    Well, I reflect on it with some deep disturb — I feel very disturbed about it.

    I look back at these 20 years, and I see our own domestic culture of tolerance having been eroded. I see a breakdown in our politics, which the war on terror certainly fed into, the trillions of dollars spent, not spent on public health and education and infrastructure in this country. I think we took our eye off the ball as China began to rise on the world stage, and we didn't adapt, didn't react to that in time.

    And then we put ourselves in a position where we were a threat to the sovereignty of nations in the Middle East, where Muslim opinion in particular reacted negatively. So, as we take a step back and look at it, the standing of the United States in the world today is diminished.

    And while that is the result of secular changes over many decades, the 9/11 response, the war on terror response, the way we went about it, that has significantly contributed to where we stand today. And we stand in a diminished place.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Kori Schake, do you see it the same way; the United States has diminished from what it was in 2001?

  • Kori Schake:

    I think that's true internationally. I think we squandered an enormous amount of goodwill.

    If you think back to the reactions people in countries had right after September 11, the enormous amount of goodwill for the United States, we squandered a lot of that with the policy choices we made in the aftermath in the next few years.

    And we dramatically underestimated how much soft power, that magnetism and attractiveness of American society really affect international attitudes about us. And we — it's very much in our national interest to rebuild that goodwill, because it makes everything we are trying to do in the world less expensive and easier.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Robert Grenier, does that say that what the United States should be doing now is forward-leaning? The U.S. should be thinking about how it leads as the indispensable nation, or thinking more about how do we work with other countries?

  • Robert Grenier:

    Well, I would say both.

    I don't subscribe to the view that somehow the U.S. is completely discredited on the world stage. Obviously, I think we have diminished in terms of our image, but we remain the indispensable nation. There are things that we are doing that need to be done in the world that, frankly, only the United States still can do.

    I think it's most important, however, that we do it in conjunction with others. And I think withdrawing from the world is a big mistake. I think we need to remain engaged and very much as a leader, working in concert with allies in like-minded countries.

  • Frank Wisner:

    We're no longer the dominant power that we were even coming out of 1989 and the end of the Cold War. We are one nation, a leading nation, a nation with huge purpose and huge resources, but one among many. And we have to balance our interests with our capabilities, and recognize, in a multipolar world, we have to build alliances, and have to come to terms with adversaries.

    That's the big challenge before Americans today, as they readjust their view of the world and our place in it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, finally, Robert Grenier, in terms of lessons learned, what the U.S. needs to — lessons the U.S. needs to have absorbed from the terrible experience of 9/11, what would that be?

  • Robert Grenier:

    What is top of mind for me is that we have to be aware and cognizant of the limits of our own power, what we can reasonably accomplish, and to have the discipline and the wisdom to recognize those limits and to act accordingly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Kori Schake, lessons?

  • Kori Schake:

    We ought to have more perspective, keep things in perspective, and have a longer-term horizon for sustaining an international order that's very much in the interest of American security and prosperity.

    And by overreacting to the terrorist threat of 9/11, we squandered a lot of American strength.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Frank Wisner, you get the last word on this question about lessons.

  • Frank Wisner:

    We need to be very careful, apply ourselves within strictly defined objectives, be careful that we use military force only as a last resort, that we have a preference for political, diplomatic and intelligence, as well as economic tools as we make our way in the world, but we do not lead with our military force.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Frank Wisner, Kori Schake, Robert Grenier, we thank you all so much for being with us.

  • Robert Grenier:

    Thank you.

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