The recent remembrances of 9/11 have reminded me, once again, that it was 9/12, not 9/11, that was the truly fateful day.
Of course, 9/11 was a day of heinous crimes that will live in infamy along with December 7, 1941, and many other days of similar atrocities. But 9/11 in no way determined America's future path. It presented challenges and options, but not decisions or foregone conclusions about how to respond.
In the years, months, and days immediately preceding 9/11, attitudes around the world toward the United States had been undergoing a gradual, subtle shift from the World War II legacy of admiration, gratitude, respect, and goodwill to increasing skepticism, alienation, and even hostility. A variety of factors underlay this shift, but the core element was a sense in much of the rest of the world that America increasingly no longer defined its interests, as it had long done, in terms of building a stable global order based on mutual consultation and a rough rule of law. Rather, it was increasingly seen as a whiner and sometimes even as a bully.
Yet, the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 revealed, as perhaps nothing else could have, the lingering depth of respect, gratitude, and affection for the United States even in the countries of greatest skepticism. Jacques Chirac, president of France, a country notorious for its anti-Americanism, immediately became the first foreign leader to visit New York and the site of the attack. Le Monde, the left-leaning and somewhat anti-American leading journal of France, proclaimed in banner headlines: "Nous sommes tous Americain" -- We are all Americans. The French flag was flown at half-mast.
For the first time in its history and without a request from the United States, NATO invoked Article 5, the provision under which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all and all undertake to defend the one. U.S. embassies from London to Moscow to Beijing to Tokyo to Singapore to virtually everywhere else in the world were buried in flowers and surrounded by sympathizers mourning America's losses. In one heinous moment, al Qaeda had managed to reverse the tide of alienation from America that had been rising.
The potential for a dramatic, positive reset of America's role and relations in the world was enormous. The atmosphere was pregnant with possibilities. Imagine what might have happened if President George W. Bush had taken the opportunity to do a global satellite television hookup. Using the time zones to his advantage, he could have rotated around the world expressing gratitude -- "Thank you London, thank you Paris, thank you Moscow, thank you Beijing. I'm going to invite your leaders, my good friends Tony, Jacques, Vladimir, Jintao (and others) to Camp … no, to the ranch this weekend. And we're all going to discuss this evil and develop a plan jointly to crush it and stamp it out."
At that moment, the president could have had anything he wanted.
That, of course, was the road not taken, and to quote Robert Frost, "that has made all the difference."
Clyde Prestowitz is the president of the Economic Strategy Institute and writes on the global economy for FP.