9/11 Didn’t ‘Change Everything’

September 10, 2021 Updated: September 10, 2021


Marking 20 years since the awful day of Sept. 11, 2001, is a very personal experience. A mixture of contending emotions, based on what happened that day and the twists and turns since.

For me, it was the most shocking and consequential day of my professional life. I awoke that day anxious to prepare the Vice President to receive foreign visitors on Capitol Hill. He would join the House Speaker in presiding over a joint session address by Prime Minister John Howard of Australia. Economic and foreign policies were high on the agenda, especially policy toward Asia and the Middle East.

After checking logistics with our West Wing staff, I returned to our national security suite in the Executive Office Building. Upon entry, an army officer said, “Sir, you have to see what’s on the TV.” As we debated the type of aircraft and unique challenges of such a high level fire rescue, we saw the second tower hit and knew we were under attack. Emergency evacuation of the entire White House campus soon followed.

Epoch Times Photo
First responders pour water on the fire on scene following an attack at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 in Arlington, Virginia, in this undated photo. American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists who flew it in to the building killing 184 people. (Federal Bureau of Investigation via Getty Images)

As thousands of staff filled 17th Street, we learned of the Pentagon attack, heard other planes were unaccounted for and all, but the very few, sent to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) should leave immediately for home. I walked with colleagues about three miles to the National Zoo, the first opportunity to connect with family by phone and the first opportunity to board the Metro system for the remainder of the trip home.

Like most Americans and friends around the world, I took in the images of that terrible day on television. My daughter, only 2 years old at the time, asked what was happening, as bodies fell behind a correspondent before the network realized and cut away. We took in the destruction, panic, and loss. We felt angry and sad, but mostly determined to suit up the next day, return to work, and do everything possible to protect our way of life and defeat this enemy.

It is hard to imagine today, given the madness and polarization of recent politics, but Americans Left and Right, along with most of the world, rallied around the U.S. flag (we wore lapel pins for years), honored our first responders, and supported our troops as they prepared to fulfill President Bush’s promise that “the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon.”

It was fashionable at the time to say, “9/11 changed everything.” In the immediate aftermath, it did. Priorities on Sept. 10 were economic recovery, rebalancing relations with Russia, seeking new opportunities with India, and transitioning from Clinton’s “constructive strategic partnership” with China to the “strategic competition” advocated by Bush’s “Vulcan” foreign policy advisors during the 2000 campaign.

After 9/11, the Global War on Terrorism became first priority in all relations, counterproliferation leapfrogged to close second. Russia fell to a mid-level interest for practitioners of Kissingerian “realpolitik,” India was given a stiff arm on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and China returned to the warm bath of conventional thinking—pursuing cooperation over competition.

Epoch Times Photo
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claims to have completed North Korea’s state nuclear force, but the timing of his latest launch could reveal he is not beyond intimidation.(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

As we look back 20 years later, there is evidence to support the idea that our initial adjustments and response kept attacks against the U.S. homeland at bay and thwarted major proliferation networks. Unfortunately, weakness toward China (and others) allowed for normalization of North Korean nuclear capabilities and significant advancement of Iran’s. And the initial “shock and awe” of major military operations in Afghanistan (and Iraq) sadly gave way to far too many years of mission creep, counterinsurgency, and retreat—losing the support of the American public and most allies along the way.

In some ways, the more things changed post-9/11, the more they remained the same. Somewhat akin to “15 days to flatten the curve” with regard to COVID-19, the pursuit of cooperation over competition with China stretched through the remaining seven years of the Bush administration and throughout the entire eight years of the Obama administration. With the four years of the Trump administration looking like an aberration, rather than the course correction it should have been, U.S. policy toward China appears firmly back in the rut of “constructive strategic partnership” with its top priority being the deal of the millennium on climate change (not something that will save American lives or jobs).

On this 20th anniversary of that fateful day, the greatest sense of loss owes to the Taliban’s inauguration of its new government, China taking measure of allied faith in American deterrence, and provocative American weakness having made this new world disorder possible.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Stephen Yates is an analyst and practitioner with rare experience at top and grassroots levels of politics, policy, media, and national security affairs. He is an accomplished expert on presidential decision-making, leadership, international affairs, and strategic communication. Yates served in the White House as deputy assistant to the vice president for National Security Affairs from 2001 through 2005.