Sunday, September 11, 2011

Notes from the 9/11 Decade

I saw the World Trade Center towers for the last time in late August 2001. My family was driving me up to Maine for college and we took a scenic route through New York, I think through Brooklyn (my NYC geography wasn't great at the time). Several weeks later I came out of an 8:30 a.m. American history class at Bowdoin, learning about the early Cold War, Paul Nitze's NSC-68. I heard a stray remark about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I didn't think much of it, imagining a small plane accident like Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle's a few years later. But when I tried to check the news online, none of my regular sites were working, so I turned on my roommate's TV. Then I alerted most people on the floor of my dorm. I watched the towers collapse. I couldn't eat much for a few days.

A few weeks later, I was on a camping trip in Acadia when the United States attacked Afghanistan. I was less worried than most of the others in the car. It was a just retaliation against the country harboring al Qaeda. I didn't imagine that US troops would still be there a decade later in the longest war in American history.

In 2003 I was studying abroad in London during the march up to war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. I never believed the Bush administration's case for war. I did not trust or respect the president, partially for his politics and style, partially because I was 19, it would be a few more years before I forgave him for coming into the office in an illegitimate fashion with the Florida debacle, even though it wasn't really his fault. But the main points were that I knew there was no link between al Qaeda and Saddam and that I did not believe that preemptive war could be just or legal, at least not without the blessings of the United Nations. I admired Tony Blair at the time, he was the most eloquent public figure I had seen before Barack Obama, and he could make the case for the war in a way that almost convinced me. But then President Bush would open his mouth and drawl about Saddam "showing his cards" and I walked off to protest with more than a million others in Hyde Park. When the bombs started falling I was in Amsterdam for the weekend and ashamed to be an American. As a march of anti-war protesters went by I shed my North Face jacket and tried to look European in a purple-brown sweater.

Bush's reelection in November 2004 was another moment of despair. I knew almost no one who liked or would even defend the president and his record, and yet he won the popular vote decisively (The Democrats' lackluster candidate John Kerry nearly won the election due to a close vote in Ohio, though). The next two years were terrible for the president, however. Bush's second inaugural address is worth a read, especially in the context of the changes today in the Middle East. America's power was already past its peak - which was in the 1950s, around the time my parents were born, although the 1990s represented a new peak - and we would never return to a pre-9/11 sense of security. But the laissez-faire candidate who had campaigned against nation-building had become a war president who fully embraced Wilsonianism with his "freedom agenda." This was a crusading president whose country still looked strong. Months later, Hurricane Katrina destroyed that president, with FEMA's failures and television cameras exposing scenes that many people worldwide did not believe could happen in America. Iraq got bloodier and opposition rose.

I taught German students, a few of whom were the children of Turkish or Iranian immigrants, at a high school in Hamburg in 2005 and 2006, on a Fulbright grant. The students told me they hated George W. Bush, some said they didn't like America. I explained that myself and many other Americans didn't like Bush either or agree with him on Iraq, that the country was divided but that we had freedom of speech and a rich history of dissent, I told them about Henry David Thoreau going to jail for a night rather than support the Mexican-American War with his taxes, I played them Bob Dylan's "Masters of War." They warmed up to me.

I love my country though I had very strong feelings against the ruling party. I was in Hamburg for the World Cup, and I bought myself a Team USA jersey, watched many games in an outdoor viewing area, in bars and cafes and pubs, at home, cheered raucously, shook hands with Italians after the US drew with them in a nasty, gritty match. I returned home in the summer. The Democrats swept into power in Congress. Donald Rumsfeld was replaced by Robert Gates (one of the best decisions of Bush's presidency - by and large, the weakened president did a much better job in his last two years).

I never watched Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004. By summer 2007, Mark Warner had decided not to run, Bill Richardson didn't look like he was going anywhere, and while I still hoped Al Gore would jump into the race, I couldn't count on it. I read Obama's Dreams From My Father to confirm a hunch and embraced his candidacy over Hillary Clinton's and John Edwards'. He was very smart, had an inspiring story, eloquent speaker, I agreed with him on most policies (and still do), and I understand his temperament (and still do). He had the potential to become one of the great presidents in American history, to recover what we had lost of ourselves at home and abroad over the past decade and longer. I obsessively followed the primary and its results, I could tell you who every member of Congress had endorsed. I campaigned for him in Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania. On election night, I was watching at a party hosted by the American Embassy in Rome, having moved to Bologna, Italy, to study international relations. Most of us students at the Johns Hopkins University's Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, at least in the Bologna campus, supported Obama. Some cried when he won Ohio and sealed his election. I was elated as I wandered the Eternal City at dawn. A bright future for America and the world had opened up, and working in international relations, I was going to be a part of that somehow.

Three years later, however, the economic crisis that Obama inherited has not been solved, and a double-dip recession looms when the Eurozone crisis reaches a breaking point, if not sooner. I had made Washington, DC my home by the time the Tea Party rose up to shake my faith in the possibility a brighter future for my country. I still strongly support President Obama. But the character of the United States remains conservative enough - in both parties - and the money flowing into politics corrupting enough and the media useless enough and the Republican Party has skilled and cynical enough tacticians and the president cautious enough that Obama's will not be a great transformative presidency. The left in America is instead facing a rearguard action to preserve decades-old social programs, environmental protection, and worker's rights. Wall Street will not be controlled by regulation. The fundamentals of the American economy are not strong, when the economy grows it produces growth for too few, and I have little hope that people with power will not block the situation from being substantially improved. The debt ceiling crisis was a turning point. The country is headed in the wrong direction, and it is heading in that direction because the power of the right, even controlling just one house of Congress and the Supreme Court. Austerity will make our problems worse, not solve them. Sometimes you can only laugh to keep from crying about the situation, this is why comedian Jon Stewart has become the leading voice of progressives' outrage.

I live in Europe these days, and was woken up around 3:30 a.m. on May 2 by the beep of a news flash on my iPad. I followed the rumors on Twitter and then President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had finally been killed by our SEALs. I was proud and wished I had been back in DC to run over to the White House where Americans were celebrating. The death of al Qaeda's leader punctuates the end of the 9/11 decade. We can reflect now, on September 11, 2011. The men who killed thousands and changed our world have been brought to justice. With the Middle East transforming at a rapid rate in 2011, we're in a new chapter of history.

So what shall we conclude from the results of the 9/11 decade? I'm unfortunately fairly pessimistic.

Al Qaeda has been largely defeated - at least the core group. But there are offshoots, like the one we fought in post-invasion Iraq. Yemen and other failed states pose a threat because of jihadist terrorists operating there. And al Qaeda got much of what they wanted. They drew the United States into bloody wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. The world economy has been damaged and its center of gravity shifted away from the West.

The war in Iraq was a strategic mistake. America won the war, but at too dear a price. The new Iraq could become a proxy of Iran. John Maynard Keynes once wrote "it is not sufficient that the state of affairs which we seek to promote should be better than the state of affairs which preceded it; it must be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of the transition." This is a key question for the transitioning Middle East, for many Iraqis, their new life will not be sufficiently better to make up for the things they have lost in recent years.

Afghanistan, the just war, looks to have been lost between 2002 and 2009 if it was ever winnable, largely because resources were shifted to Iraq. The real war against al Qaeda in Central Asia is being fought by the CIA in Pakistan. The decade-long effort of the US and its allies in Afghanistan has definitely improved things for Afghans, in the balance, but it has also likely weakened the state in Pakistan, a larger, nuclear-armed country full of anti-American extremists.

With the Middle East in turmoil, there have been triumphs for democracy and the human spirit as dictators have fallen. The fall of the terrible Muammar Qaddafi in Libya is the most positive development, though that country still risks becoming Somalia-On-the-Mediterranean. Horrific violence continues in Syria and regime change is far from certain there. It is hard to predict what the future will look like in Egypt and the other countries. As a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, points out, revolutions eat their children. Israel, under the leadership of Binjamin Netanyahu, at the end of the 9/11 decade, at the end of a decade of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party transforming Turkey into a more democratic but more Islamist state, and nine months into the Arab Spring, is as isolated as it has been in decades.

The United States of America has spent trillions of dollars on national security in the last decade - wars, concrete barriers in our cities, unreasonable security measures around our embassies and in our airports. Many of these measures make us safer, some, like the war in Iraq, have the opposite effect. Al Qaeda's attack has done too much to change American life. The occasions where we have thrown away our principles in the name of security have damaged us in the eyes of the world, just as the crisis of our much lauded and copied economic system spread to damage the economies of countless other countries, weakening their faith in America. Humiliating visitors to our country and building ultra-secure castles to house our diplomats abroad damages our soft power.

The optimistic side? New York, especially Lower Manhattan, is doing fine. So is Washington. We can absorb attacks, as Londoners did during the Blitz. Fight our enemies abroad in the shadows, with intelligence and drones and Stuxnet and the like, but not with torture. We shouldn't live our daily lives in fear of low-probability attacks. We have to face up to the real greater challenges, rebuild our strength at home, and manage our inevitable loss in relative power overseas as other countries grow faster than we can. The country's challenges are real and they are dire. But terrorism is not that close to the top of the list. Becoming the country we want to be, living up to our ideals and our great potential - that needs to be our priority.

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