American Politics: Beyond the 9/11 Decade

By Tom Switzer

During the September 11 anniversary commemorations, it’s occurred to me that the past two decades of the post-Cold War era have represented dramatically different epochs for US foreign policy. The period from 1991 to 2001 was an unqualified success, whereas the era from 2001 to 2011 has been disastrous.

But before we assess the past two decades, it is important to acknowledge some significant caveats about the war against Islamic terrorism.

Go back to the weeks and months following that dreadful day. The conventional wisdom suggested that another terrorist attack on US soil was inevitable. Yet America has not suffered another attack in the past decade. That surely qualifies as an important achievement for both the Bush and Obama administrations.

No doubt the beefed-up law enforcement approach to terrorism has helped here. But what about those warrantless wiretaps, preventive detention, and even Gitmo? After all, U.S. intelligence has come from detainees who’ve been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Perhaps all of this explains Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent observation that al Qaida is on the verge of strategic defeat.

Meanwhile, US civil liberties — notwithstanding much handwringing among Western sophisticates — remain robust. As Paul Wolfowitz, the controversial former US defence secretary argued last week:  

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were put in concentration camps. That there was no comparable overreaction after 9/11, and that we have been able to preserve a free and open society, owes much to the fact that for 10 years there has been no repetition of those terrible attacks.

All true.

But having said all that, America has suffered some dreadful setbacks since 9/11, much of them self-inflicted. A reflection of the past two decades helps clarify thinking. Consider:

In the 1990s, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire left America victorious, supreme, and about as unthreatened as a great power can be.

The US saw off two rivals in Japan and West Germany. As the US was left unchallenged in its supremacy, the American people were profoundly wary of foreign entanglements. After facing the unusual burdens of the Cold War, they were keen to cash in on the “peace dividend.”

As Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Ronald Reagan’s tough anti-communist ambassador to the United Nations, remarked 20 years ago: “With a return to ‘normal’ times, we can again become a normal nation.” In this new era, the U.S. was comparatively reticent to throw its weight around the world.

Meanwhile, at home, everything that should be up — incomes, growth, the stock market — was up, while everything that should be down — unemployment, inflation and deficits — was down. For many influential writers, globalisation was regarded as a synonym for Americanisation.

Americans were fat and happy.

By contrast, the decade following the September 11 terrorist attacks has represented one of the most disastrous periods in American history. Despite some of the aforementioned successes in the war on terror, the truth is that the U.S. is in a lot worse situation today compared a decade ago.

The Bush doctrine of preventive war, democracy promotion, and aggressive unilateralism encouraged the belief that the US could impose its will and leadership across the globe.

We were confidently assured that anything the US willed was achievable. As one White House adviser told journalist Ron Suskind in 2005: “We are an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality.”

Two US wars brought down Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan, but in the process have cost America dearly in terms of credibility and prestige as well as blood and treasure.

Meanwhile, Washington’s reckless spending policies and its misguided policy of pushing home ownership through dodgy sub-prime lending, taken together with the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policies, helped set the scene for the financial crisis — and the stubbornly high unemployment, gut-wrenching stock market volatility, and skyrocketing national debt that have accompanied the swelling home foreclosures.

So, how do things look at the beginning of the third decade of the post-Cold War era?

Where a mere decade ago the world was in awe of US military power, today the world is much more aware of its limitations and costs — and less impressed. Where a mere decade ago, the US was widely hailed as the miracle economy, there are no surviving illusions on that score.

The result: US credibility and prestige have been dissipated and squandered; its authority and standing has been diminished; and its ability to lead and persuade other states has been reduced.

This process may have started in the Bush era, but it has continued during the Obama years. Witness, for instance, the failure of the President to convince China on currency devaluation, Israel on the settlements, and NATO allies on committing more troops to Afghanistan.

As the brush with default has recently shown, serious doubts have been raised about whether Americans remain willing and able to pay for any grand, activist foreign policy. And as the Libyan episode has recently indicated, the US is required to be increasingly parsimonious in using its military force actively.

According to a Chicago Council of Global Affairs opinion survey: “Looking forward 50 years, only one-third of Americans think the US will continue to be the world’s leading power.”

Regardless of the result of next year’s presidential election, it’s a fair bet that the next decade will mark some significant reordering of American priorities in the world.

12 September 2011