Can September 11 Make The United States Serious Again

for President Magazine (Japanese)

     The awful events of September 11 may have jolted the United States into becoming serious again. Its earlier seriousness, with which it rescued political civilization at least twice in the twentieth century, rather quickly dissipated after the end of the Cold War. Because of that savior role, and because of the basic decency of its people, I have always liked the United States. But just before the terrorist attacks I had been planning a series of columns about the necessity for “soft anti-Americanism” (if only to prevent the virulent type that serves no one), prompted by appalling situations in the world the US political elite was helping to create often without the knowledge of most of its citizens.
     The Cold War enforced a world order of considerable stability. For one thing, it kept the United States on its toes. Washington had to be concerned about the world in a broad sense. Before the Cold War ended, one could trust an adviser or two to tap the president’s shoulder and warn him to be serious in view of the life threatening situation that came with that rivalrous situation. But whenever I visited the United States a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union an image used to come to my mind of a corset having been removed – something that had kept various parts of society and the body politic in place and gave the country its moral shape.
     The loss of seriousness was discernable in a neglectful foreign policy as well as domestic developments; the downslide of one appeared to be coupled to that of the other. A country engaged in a Cold War cannot undermine the institution of the presidency as by indulging in a Lewinsky scandal, and cannot engage in the kind of partisan viciousness and hypocrisy we saw in the impeachment period. It could also not have allowed that virulent form of capitalism that has steadily been undermining political systems and the social order. The absence of a rival superpower appeared to have removed American obstacles to the most massive transfer of wealth ever from a middle class to a heavily moneyed overclass. The loss of seriousness, moreover, permitted disdainful treatment of countries or groups that had some bone to pick with the United States. It allowed for the continual bombing of Iraq without any thoughts about possible consequences. It allowed for the acting out of utopian fantasies of unfettered global markets, justifying a political program aimed at the transfer of power from local governments all over the world to transnational investors. International economic policies inspired by corporate interests have helped cause vastly more economic misery, in Russia and the poorer parts of the world, than most Americans could even imagine.
     Clinton was America’s first non-serious president. Many have wondered whether his successor knew what it meant to be serious, especially when during his first eight months in office, he unilaterally withdrew from international treaties and showed indifference to what the putative allies might think.
     A crime against American citizens, and the citizens of some 80 other countries, so extraordinarily devastating that we still have difficulty to imagine its dimensions in full; the melting steel of the two buildings that dominated the Manhattan skyline becoming a mass grave; a huge chunk burned out of the administrative centre of the strongest armed forces on earth; and all of it seen, again and again and again, on tv screens everywhere in the world; …. it could indeed constitute the shock that will make the United States serious again. Hundreds of commentators have said this in different ways. America’s new mission – a collective effort against world terrorism – is not possible if Washington disregards the political thinking in Paris, London, Berlin, Tokyo, Moscow; and if it does not enter into new kinds of conversations with Islamic countries, and Islamic clergy. American diplomats with experience, a neglected resource, are likely to be listened to again if they can be brought back. A knowledge of history will perhaps once again be considered as something that can help you with understanding the world rather than something that holds you back.
     Wondering whether this sledgehammer blow to America’s sense of invulnerability does indeed inspire a turnabout to seriousness, we should first turn our attention to the man in the pivotal position. There is no question that in living memory there has been no president less respected when he was sworn in. The thought that he stole the presidency with the help of a partisan Supreme Court was still very much alive in the minds of numerous Americans when terrorists struck. For some time now, the presidency has been bought with the help of rich sponsors, but candidates were still expected to demonstrate certain talents. G. W. Bush, however, did little more than buy the presidency, and the deal was clinched only when his men resorted to intimidation of the opposition and legal sleights of hand. Can such a president ever enjoy the authority of wartime presidents like Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman?
     A torrent of wishful thinking has deluged the United States at the moment. The media consume considerable amounts of propaganda. Independent thought is not given much of a hearing, and while the authorities keep repeating that they are dealing with an entirely new kind of war, and that the world finds itself in a wholly new situation, there is no indication of fundamentally new questions being discovered and being asked. The President must be seen as a commanding commander in chief, assisted by knowledgeable advisers. The country is unified behind him – for the first time since Vietnam even ready to sacrifice soldiers of flesh and blood. American skeptics, too, must try to believe that they have a competent president. Not to believe it risks being labeled unpatriotic. But trying to believe such a thing is a hard task, not envied by politically aware people outside the United States.
     On the day of the attack and on the following days when most people could not concentrate on other subjects and found it difficult to stay away from TV screens, one of the major questions was discussed only in closed circles: can “the most powerful man on the planet” cope with this? Not ever asked explicitly on screen, it was foremost in the heads of millions. When after a great delay Bush finally showed his face on TV he gave the impression of being confused and frightened. He could not build his sentences coherently and intone them with a sense of genuine conviction, and sometimes gave the impression that he did not fully understood the words he used. In their neutral and often dead-pan reporting the American media are giving the story away as they focus on whether or not it came from the heart when Bush said this, that or the other, or whether it was prepared by his coaches. I must have read that “his tears were real” in at least half a dozen places. It is openly acknowledged that he is an “intensely scripted” president, which means that most of the words you hear him say are put in his mouth by other people.
     Unless the means to overcome a terrible plight are not in question, presidential words are crucially important. They frame the thoughts that will eventually determine a choice of action, and they must communicate what is essential to the nation without raising unfulfillable expectations. Marking the “prime suspect” Osama bin Laden as “wanted dead or alive”, is not prudent if you do not have a good chance of catching him. Naming a “prime suspect” may furthermore transform a criminal into a folk hero.
    The ultimatum to the Taleban is equally unwise as it cannot be met without ending the Taleban’s shaky hold over a system of warlords that forms the current political reality of Afghanistan (rather reminiscent of the Tokugawa system in its very beginnings). It appears that Bush’s entourage already considers the Taleban’s demise as a provisional aim. But while bringing momentary relief to the long suffering Afghan population, this would turn Afghanistan back into the battleground that gave birth to the Osama bin Laden phenomenon to begin with, and risk the replacement of Pakistan’s military dictatorship with jihad-prone elements (who would, then, possess nuclear weapons).
     Probably the most fateful words in the earliest response from the Bush administration were those that declared the United States to be in a state of war. A war is fought between states. It has a clear purpose: you inflict so much damage on the hostile state that it surrenders and can be made to sign a peace treaty. Under current circumstances there is no state that can surrender; there is not even a clearly delineated enemy that can be located. Victory in what President Bush is now calling the first war of the twentyfirst century can only be achieved through the eradication of all terrorists. But that is not possible. Furthermore, the likely means to “eradicate” terrorists will cause so much additional hatred among Islamic populations that terrorists will multiply. (It is worth noting that the United States has for many years now waged a misconceived “war against drugs”, which has been a dismal failure and made the problem significantly worse, also in Europe, through much increased crime and social disruption). Characterising the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon as the beginning of a war is, most likely, precisely what the perpetrators wanted to achieve. They desire a holy war against the forces that in their thinking have corrupted the purity of a particularly retrograde version of their faith. Their mission concerns power within the Islamic world; it is part of a longstanding campaign to replace relatively moderate Islamic governments, and secular governments in countries with an Islamic population, by governments that adhere to medieval social and judicial rules.
     If the attacks had been characterised as a heinous crime rather than as the beginning of war, a different set of defenses would have presented itself. When a major crime is committed, especially one without precedent, authorities guarding populations concentrate their attention first on the motives of the criminals and their organizational methods so as to help prevent a recurrence. Such an emphasis in the effort to counter terrorism may still win the day if the world is lucky and if wise American and European counsel prevails. French President Chirac clearly objected to the term “war”, although he was quite polite about it. Unfortunately, the readiness to call the crime a declaration of war rather than a crime appears to have become a test as to how much countries or commentators are “behind” the United States.
     The Europeans can not be accused of callousness in the face of the tragedy that has struck so many families in New York and Washington. Many of them stood still, silently for three minutes, on city squares, on expressways, in supermarkets, or wherever they were, at noon on September 14th. But doubts about the competence of the man in the White House remain widespread. When British Prime Minister Blair praised the United States in London’s House of Commons for not striking out first and thinking afterwards, he gave voice to a palpable fear, shared by probably a majority of European politicians, of things that might still happen. Blair’s visit to Washington was a demonstration of support as well as a mission to counterbalance possible madness. He appears to have given the cautious Colin Powell more political ground under his feet. Important, because it has become fairly clear that the entourage of Bush advisers and ministers is temperamentally and intellectually divided on the question of what should be on the military agenda. Bush, therefore, may still have some deciding to do.
     Bush has had a pampered youth. Things were very much arranged for him; he was presented with the governorship of Texas on a platter. Right wing heavyweights in the Republican Party saw him as their ideal candidate because he would do what they told him, while being more acceptable to mainstream voters because of his relatively soft and compromising demeanor. It is fair to say that he never faced a substantial challenge in his life. All of a sudden, now, he is faced with a challenge the response to which may well decide the geopolitical fate of the planet. Figurehead “leaders” are not uncommon in the world. But the United States does not have institutions that compensate for the weakness of such governments. The American president can, in emergencies, truly become “the most powerful man in the world”.
     Will G. W. Bush help turn the United States once again into a serious country; a country that defines its responsibilities as reaching far beyond the petty interests of a domestic elite, and the interests of its own Big Business?
After the disappearance of its Soviet rival on the world stage, the United States more readily resorts to intimidation in the conduct of its international affairs. Intimidation has been a normal mode for the strong, throughout history. But on top of that it appears to be the preferred mode of political intercourse among those who are most responsible for putting Bush where he is. Intimidation played a major part in Gore’s defeat last December. Defence secretary Rumsfeld and vice president Cheney are natural intimidators. Paul Wolfowitz, the influential deputy defense secretary, appears to believe that by punishing governments that play host to terrorists you can dissuade both of them from further terrorist activity. And he is apparently in favor of eliminating Saddam Hussein; unfinished business for the Bush family.
     If Bush, through wise counsel, can bring the United States back to being serious about the world, we should see fantasies about eradicating all terrorism being replaced by sober assessments of how to limit the elbow room of jihad-prone groups and how to prevent their proliferation. We should see a gradual widening alliance of Muslims and their clergy preaching the traditional tolerance of Islam and warning against the corruption of extremism. We would see a peaceful modus vivendi with the governments of Islamic countries, hopefully leading to more domestic political diversity that defuses Islamic extremism. We should see a priority placed on anything having to do with control over and destruction of biological and chemical weapons. All this would not preclude military action if such can stop new terrorist assaults.
     But if the current president of the United States is led to believe that he should not risk being viewed as a coward in his newly found Christian mission of eradicating evil, and if he orders coordinated strikes against Iraq and the Taleban, as well as sundry “punishments” for extending hospitality to terrorists, and a man-hunt for Osama bin Laden – all with much “collateral damage” – we will live in a fearful world, in which the moral glue for the old alliance of relatively democratic countries will have disappeared.