I've been in a reflective mood lately. Or maybe I always think I'm in a reflective mood. It could have been so much better. The counterfactual world where the United States never invaded Iraq is one I would have preferred to live in, for instance. But to have had such a preference, itself, is a luxury.
For the people of the Middle East, September 11 was the catalyst for a series of unfortunate developments, each of which left its mark. To be sure, these developments did not flow naturally or logically from the attack itself. The Iraq war shouldn’t have happened, but it did. Once the invasion began, it was not foreordained that George W. Bush’s man in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, would hastily disband the Iraqi army, pushing armed and angry men to join a budding anti-American insurgency. But that happened, too.
Barack Obama rose to prominence on the promise that he would be what Bush wasn't. He stood out, at least compared to his compromised Democratic counterparts, for his prescient opposition to a war that seemed to so many of us self-evidently absurd. (Luckily, I was in the throes of reading my Chomsky when it counted). As I recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, Obama bet that Americans were ready for something unusual. And he was surely unusual. We rejoiced at the prospect of the son of a Muslim—and someone who actually knew who Edward Said was—becoming the president of the United States of America. But I digress. Without one thing, the next thing wouldn't have occurred. As Ben Rhodes noted: “Obama would not have been elected as the 44th president of the United States were it not for 9/11, which set in motion the chain of events that led to the Iraq War.” And had Obama not been elected, there’s a reasonable chance Donald Trump wouldn’t have been either.
There is a limit to counterfactual history. It becomes easy and all too convenient to argue that everything changed because a man named Osama Bin Laden decided, at a particular moment, that he would dedicate his life to waging war against the United States despite having a number of more obvious targets closer to home. Suffice it to say, however, many things did change, and many of those things appear to have been quite bad.