Monday, September 12, 2011

Sept 11: Not quite a hinge in history

Sep 11, 2011

Despite having the world on its side, the US wasted the chance to transform the world
By Janadas Devan

The United States has fought numerous wars over the past 100 years, including two world wars. But it has been attacked only twice on its own soil in that period: Once, on Dec 7, 1941, when Japanese planes bombed the US Pacific fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor; and next, on Sept 11, 2001, when Islamicist terrorists wielding box-cutters flew passenger planes into buildings in New York and Washington.

The US army had more horses than it had tanks on the eve of Pearl Harbor. No sooner after the event, the country re-armed massively; shipped supplies and armaments to its allies; and prosecuted a war on two widely-separated fronts - one in Europe, against Nazi Germany, and the other in Asia-Pacific, against Imperial Japan.

It remains to this day the only power in history to have prosecuted a truly global war. Britain, the former Soviet Union, Germany, Italy and Japan fought in World War II. The US fought a world war.

Within three-and-a-half years of Pearl Harbor, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had surrendered and US forces had occupied both countries. Saved from the devastation that had visited other countries during the war, the US economy surged ahead in the post-war years.

Abroad, the US dollar became the lynchpin of the global financial system; the US military the anchor of the Western alliance; and US diplomacy the skilful tool of a Pax Americana. The alphabet soup of global agencies - from the IMF to the UN, from Nato to the World Bank - all came into existence during this period of extraordinary American leadership.

At home, the Truman administration built on Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programmes, creating a vast middle class. The US government invested heavily in education, especially with the GI Bill, which funded the college or vocational education of demobbed soldiers, and provided loans to them to buy homes and start businesses.

Neither of the major parties, the Democratic nor the Republican, was sharply ideological then. As a result, the succeeding Eisenhower administration, though Republican, adopted pragmatic policies similar to the Democratic Roosevelt-Truman administrations. One of the largest infrastructure projects in US history - the building of the inter-state highways traversing the continent - was undertaken during the Eisenhower years.

As a result of this pragmatism - the efflorescence of the can-do American spirit across both the private and public sectors - the US became a colossus abroad within 10 years of Pearl Harbor, its economy the most vibrant in the world, and its people the most prosperous. The 1950s were a golden era in American history.

It is 10 years since Sept 11 today. The so-called 'war on terror' has already lasted almost thrice as long as America's involvement in World War II. What has it got to show for all the blood and treasure it has spilled over the last decade?

Al-Qaeda has been defeated but it has not been destroyed. The US did humanity a great service by bearing the brunt of the 'war on terror', but few feel grateful to it as a result. It did pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to prosecute the war against terror in the 2000s - but ended up with precious few friends and plenty more foes despite its pains.

The chief reason for this was the Iraq war - a war the Bush administration insisted on fighting without the authorisation of the United Nations and without the help of most of its chief allies.

'We are all New Yorkers,' the French newspaper Le Monde proclaimed in the immediate aftermath of Sept 11. That warm feeling disappeared within a year as Washington rushed pell mell into Saddam Hussein's Iraq, on the grounds that it possessed weapons of mass destruction. US forces didn't discover so much as a vial of enriched uranium there.

The US was an empire and ought to behave as one, the more unrestrained of the neo-conservatives proclaimed. The tragedy of Sept 11 became the occasion for neo-con hubris with alarming ease. Americans were full of passionate intensity after Pearl Harbor too, but their leaders then didn't proclaim themselves rulers of the world before a single battle was won.

The neo-cons displayed a similar hubris on the home front. The US economy, built on principles they assumed were eternally valid, was self-correcting and could be left on auto-pilot. Ideology, not pragmatism, became the common coin of politics in Washington, as the country sank into a morass of internecine ideological warfare that still rages.

Raise income taxes to pay for the war? No need. Americans can have both guns and butter. Raise petrol taxes and wean Americans from their dependence on oil from the Middle East? No need. Nothing should interfere with America's love affair with the internal combustion engine. The relentless rise of the national debt must be halted and Americans must save more? No need. Americans can hit the shopping malls, as then President George W. Bush urged them to do after Sept 11, and the Chinese and the Japanese will pick up the tab.

American soldiers - mostly the sons and daughters of poorer families - went to war. The American people went shopping. And the rest of the world was told to take a hike.

After Pearl Harbor, even as hundreds of thousands of young men were conscripted and shipped off to distant shores, the home front was organised for war. People planted vegetables and fruits in their backyards to augment the food supply - 'victory gardens' they were called. People lined up to buy war bonds, urged on by movie stars and politicians - 'Buy a Share of Victory' was the slogan. People accepted there had to be blood, toil, tears and sweat - on the war front as well as on the home front.

American soldiers - including all four sons of president Roosevelt - went to war. The American people - including 'Rosie the Riveter' - went to work to support the boys. And the rest of the world was told they belonged to the United Nations, allied with the US in a common effort to defeat fascism.

A moment comes but rarely in history when the entire world is united by a single emotion. Such was the moment 10 years ago today, as people watched the twin towers of New York collapse in Himalayas of dust. Washington might have used that moment to forge a new global order.

Instead, it squandered it. The Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, announced it wasn't ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming, and dissed the International Criminal Court. On one issue after another, the US went its own way, with little regard for global opinion.

An avenging superpower is a frightening enough sight; an avenging superpower that insists on its own rules seemed even more unnerving. By the time the US was ready to engage as an equal but preponderant power in the councils of the world, beginning with the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009, it was too late.

This is why Sept 11 may live in our memories but perhaps not in history. Pearl Harbor was one of those hinges in history beyond which stood a transformed world. By comparison, Sept 11, ghastly though it was, just happened.

[Basically, the same thing that Thomas Friedman and probably many thinkers also said. George W. Bush is probably  one of the dumbest president ever. He was called to history, and he turned up in bible study.]

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