'Every American’s heart was wounded': How the scars of 9/11 are shaping Joe Biden's presidency

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WASHINGTON – In September 2021, Joe Biden became the first president in two decades to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks without U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars started in the aftermath of that tragedy.

But in ways big and small, the scars from that day are shaping Biden’s presidency.

"On this day, every American’s heart was wounded,” Biden said at a ceremony in Alaska on Monday to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the attacks and remember those whose lives were lost.

Speaking to military members, first responders and their families at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Biden pointed to the sense of national unity that sprung forth in the days immediately after the attacks and said it’s more important than ever that Americans come together around the principle of democracy.

“Those terrorists could not touch what no force, no enemy, no day ever could – and that is the soul of America,” he said.

But the post-9/11 unity faded amid questions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which dragged on for years. Today, Americans remain deeply distrustful of and dissatisfied with their government, a piece of the political landscape that gained traction in part because of the Iraq war and the false premises on which it was launched.

President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, promising to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. None were ever found. Nearly 7,000 U.S. troops were lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two decades later, many Americans are skeptical that either war made the country safer.

Distrust of the government has made it hard for Biden to govern effectively and threatens to spill over into next year’s election when he will ask voters to give him a second term.

“Biden is living in an America where I think there's less faith in government as a concept than at any time perhaps in American history,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Just 20% of Americans surveyed last year by Pew Research Center said they trust the government in Washington to do the right thing most of the time – a sentiment that has changed little since Bush’s second term in office. Bush was president on Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon just outside Washington, killing nearly 3,000 people.

President Joe Biden bows his head during remarks to service members, first responds and their families at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, on the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
President Joe Biden bows his head during remarks to service members, first responds and their families at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, on the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

From the archives: The day before an American tragedy: dispatches from Sept. 10, 2001

Biden’s presidency continues to be shadowed by the fallout of his withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan two years ago.

Biden originally announced that the pullout would be completed on Sept. 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the attacks that pulled the country into the war. He eventually pushed the withdrawal forward to Aug. 31 after objections from Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who questioned how admitting defeat would honor the dead, according to “The Last Politician,” author Franklin Foer’s new book about the first two years of Biden’s administration.

On Aug. 26, 2021, in the chaotic final hours of the withdrawal, a terrorist attack initiated by a single suicide bomber at the Kabul airport killed 13 U.S. troops and at least 170 Afghans, infuriating Americans, angering U.S. allies and raising questions about how the Biden administration handled the pullout.

Republicans and some Democrats in Congress faulted the administration for failing to anticipate Afghanistan’s collapse and failure to get American troops out more quickly. Gold Star families whose loved ones were killed are demanding transparency from the administration about what went wrong and why their loved ones died.

Foer’s book recounts a tense moment that Biden spent with some of the fallen soldiers’ families at Dover Air Force Base just days after the attack. After the mournful ritual of a “dignified transfer” of the bodies, a sister of one of the soldiers screamed across the tarmac in Biden’s direction: “I hope you burn in hell. That was my brother.”

“Of all the moments in August, this was the one that caused the president to second-guess himself,” Foer wrote. “It was the one time he kept reanalyzing his actions.”

Afghanistan withdrawal: Biden administration acknowledges flaws in pullout, says should have evacuated troops sooner

The Biden administration acknowledged in its assessment of the war that it should have anticipated the fall of Afghanistan and moved troops out more swiftly. But it also blamed Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, arguing he set the stage for the chaotic withdrawal by lowering troop levels in Afghanistan and negotiating with the Taliban without consulting allies or the Afghan government.

“The Biden administration earned the criticism for the manner in which it mismanaged the withdrawal,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian and faculty scholar at Columbia University’s Institute of Global Politics.

But, Naftali said, “the Biden administration also was the victim of a climate of mistrust. In a sense, it's ironic, and I'm sure annoying to the administration, that they didn't get any credit for getting the United States out of an unpopular war. But that I think is due to the fact that we live in this particular moment of American political culture.”

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Lingering skepticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is one of the reasons Biden has had trouble getting Congress to approve emergency funding for Ukraine in its war against Russia – a conflict that doesn’t even involve the deployment of U.S. troops. American support for Ukraine has been eroding at the same time Republican-led House has been under pressure to show support for Trump, who has been skeptical of U.S. support for Ukraine in the war.

While Biden was rightfully criticized for his management of the Afghanistan withdrawal, Naftali said, “I think the administration is getting a raw deal when it comes to the understanding of the management of the Ukraine situation.”

Biden showed tremendous leadership in forging an alliance with U.S. allies such as Germany, France and Britain and standing firm against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Naftali said. But the Republican-led House, which would have to approve Ukraine funding, is now dominated by supporters of Trump.

“For many of those members of the House, it’s all politics,” Naftali said. “They can’t get out their minds the first impeachment (of Trump). And so for many of those members of the House, this is all about Donald Trump.”

Engle argues that without the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent wars, there would have been no Trump presidency – and, for that matter, no President Biden.

“You had to have a combination of genuine disillusionment and anger with the system to fuel Trump’s revolution within the Republican Party,” he said. “Without 9/11, you don’t get the American misadventures in the Middle East. And, therefore, you don’t get Trump.”

Biden’s appeal to voters in the 2020 election was largely a reflection of Americans’ desire to return to normalcy after the turbulent Trump years, Engel said.

“Without a radical rupture and destruction of faith in American government, American society, you don't have any need 20 years later for a guy who says, ‘I'm boring and normal and know how things actually were supposed to work.’”

Contributing: Maureen Groppe

Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @mcollinsNEWS.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sept. 11: Scars of terrorist attacks shape Joe Biden's presidency