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Miller Center webinar panelists analyze the impacts of 9/11 — 20 years later

The Zoom discussion was the first of two in which speakers will discuss the aftermath of the terrorist attacks

Ann Compton, former White House correspondent for ABC News, moderated the discussion between former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Ann Compton, former White House correspondent for ABC News, moderated the discussion between former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Miller Center of Public Affairs hosted a webinar Thursday afternoon to discuss the continued impacts of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, American foreign policy and recent actions in Afghanistan. 

The webinar was one of two hosted by the Miller Center this week to observe the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 people were killed by terrorists in the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda after they hijacked planes that crashed into the Twin Towers, Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Bill Antholis, director and CEO of the Miller Center, began the webinar by noting that the discussion was “hyper-relevant” due to recent events in Afghanistan, referring to President Joe Biden’s decision on Aug. 31 to withdraw U.S. troops from the country after a 20-year long war. 

“Over the next two days we will explore how September 11 changed us as a people, we will look at how it changed our laws and institutions, how it changed our policies — domestic and foreign — and how it changed how the world views us,” Antholis said.

Antholis introduced History Prof. Philip Zelikow as the keynote speaker. Zelikow formerly worked in the federal government under five administrations and directed the Miller Center from 1998 to 2005. Zelikow began by talking about his experience after 9/11, having visited the towers’ remains soon after the attacks.

“I can remember going to ground zero shortly after the attacks, and noticing that awful pungent smell of the place, as if the terrorists had opened up some special sulfurous path,” Zelikow said. 

Zelikow said he also has vivid memories of directing the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which is also known as the 9-11 Commission. He recalled visiting the location in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden planned the attacks and listening to cockpit recordings from United Flight 93, which was hijacked by terrorists and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers and crew attempted to regain control of the plane. 

Zelikow then turned his attention to the continued “civil conflicts racking the whole Muslim world,” which he said began in 1979 with “revolts and revolutions” in Middle Eastern countries.

“​​There are fresh opportunities to reassess whether, where and how the United States and other outsiders can play some constructive for helping the Muslim world find that civilizational peace,” Zelikow said.

Since 9/11, Zelikow said the threat of terrorist attacks from Islamic extremists has decreased, though it still exists. 

“The reality is that the most serious threats are posed by a relatively tiny number of people, fewer in number and less well organized than the production crew of any one of Hollywood's larger films,” Zelikow said.

Marc Selverstone, associate professor of presidential studies and chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program, then led a Q&A session with Zelikow, asking how the U.S. military should continue to act in foreign countries.

Zelikow said he believes the U.S. military has been over-invested in, while other resources — like diplomacy — haven't been focused on enough to alleviate conflict. The U.S. is the world’s largest military spender, spending approximately $778 billion on the military in 2020 — 39 percent of the world’s total military expenditure. China, the world’s second highest military spender, spent approximately $228 billion in 2020. 

Following the discussion with Zelikow, Selverstone introduced the panelists — former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Ann Compton, former White House correspondent for ABC News, moderated the discussion. Panelists answered questions which were submitted by audience members before and during the webinar.

Compton began by giving Donilon and Haass the opportunity to share where they were during the 9/11 attacks.

Donilon said he was at an appointment and was able to see smoke rising from the Pentagon, and he immediately thought about his children’s safety. Reflecting on America before 9/11, he said he believes America was in more of “an innocent time.”

“I didn't realize — I had no way to realize — what was going to unfold over the next 20 years,” Donilon said. “The United States strode the world at that point… We were at the height of our post-Cold War about the height of our power politically, economically, and militarily and technologically.”

Haass said he was meeting with the Prime Minister of Ireland and did an impromptu press conference following his notification of the attacks.

“As played out over the coming months and years, ironically enough, the awfulness of 9/11 and the changing political environment in the United States actually helped me in my work as the envoy to Northern Ireland,” Haass said.

In terms of the effectiveness of the United States’ initial response to the 9/11 attacks, Conilon commended the government’s initial intelligence gathering and former president George Bush’s efforts to reassure the country. Still, Conilon said the U.S. could have prevented the escape of Osama bin Laden from Tora Bora in late 2001 by allocating resources differently. 

Compton then asked panelists how the United States’s relationship with allies and adversaries have changed in the past two decades.

Donilon answered by noting that the U.S. didn’t focus enough on its relationship with China after 9/11. He said China had “the fastest rise by a country in history” after 9/11 and that the United States failed to politically invest enough in China and Asia.

Haass had a different response, saying the U.S. “should not have gone” to Iraq in 2003 and failed to focus on other imperative issues like climate change and global public health crises.  He said he worries about the long-term human costs and foreign and public policy consequences from the United States turning its attention away from these issues.

“[The] United States squandered a unique opportunity to recast international relations,” Haass said.

When comparing America’s presence in Iraq and in Afghanistan, Haass said both countries are examples of America trying to “impose [big ideas] on local realities.”

Donilon agreed, adding that Iraq and Afghanistan were “failures” due to flawed analysis and processes that didn’t consider all impacts that could arise from occupying the two countries. 

The panelists then continued to discuss counter-terrorism policy in the United States today.

“There’s no end to terrorism,” Haass said. “[Terrorists] are looking at what happened to the world because of COVID-19. And I would think we have to be extremely careful about a new year in which biological terrorism could become a preferred avenue.”

Though terrorism poses a constant struggle, Haass said he believes more daunting challenges face today’s society, such as threats from climate change and cyber attacks.

Going forward, Donilon noted the significance of focusing on the domestic terrorism threat in the United States, while still acting with vigilance toward terrorist groups in Afghanistan and conditions for these groups under the Taliban. The U.S. has seen an increasing number of attacks carried out by domestic terrorists, such as during the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. 

To increase democracy promotion globally, Haass said America needs to display more democratic characteristics internally. Military intervention will not effectively promote democracy, Haass said, adding that intervention is a sign that successful foreign policy didn’t work. Haass said state and capacity building are essential in promoting democracy abroad.

“If you can help locals build conditions of physical security, economic growth, then history suggests the chance for greater political openings,” Haass said.

Donilon noted what he believes the United States should focus on to effectively operate globally, including helping to alleviate the COVID-19 pandemic, managing and investing in the growing economy and demonstrating democratic practices.

Compton’s last question for the panelists asked them to recall their “fundamentally important” experiences beyond 9/11.

For Donilon, that moment came during the night bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, when troops decided to delay their entry to help prevent bin Laden’s family members from being killed as well.

“[They were] taking the time to ensure at risk to their own life, in a place they never been in the middle of night for the family essentially of our sworn enemy, making sure that they were safe,” Donilon said. “When they blew up the helicopter, and watching that go on, was really one of the most amazing things I have seen.”

To close the discussion, Haass said he hopes America’s future policy in response to challenges won’t focus on terrorism as the main threat, but emphasize “building that new world order.”

“​​How are we going to define our priority for the next three decades?” Haass asked. “Because I don't think we've done very well with that last year.”

Thursday’s panel was the first of two the Miller Center held this week to focus on 9/11. The second webinar was held Friday, Sept. 10 at 10 a.m.

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