Sunday, October 26, 2008

The NEW New World Order

Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism" has an interesting op-ed piece in today's Los Angeles Times. He notes that in the midst of the election campaign and the economic crisis, most folks failed to note the dramatic reversal of the Bush Administration when it came to North Korea. This Stalinist country went from one part of the Axis of Evil with whom the US would never negotiate to a country which successfully negotiated its removal from the State Department list of countries who harbor terrorists. How could this have happened under the cocky self-assurance of George W. Bush?

The professor's thesis is that the country's zeitgeist in 2001 is not the zeitgeist of 2008, and the country which once embraced its role as the leader of the unipolar world (the "Age of Triumphalism") is now sick of the responsibilities that role entailed. As a result, the nation's leaders don't have the backing of the people in carrying on that role:

The reality is that when it comes to statecraft, policies devised in Washington frequently express not so much the carefully calculated intentions of the nation's leaders as the people's frame of mind.

Following 9/11, "the people's frame of mind" was pretty clear, and Prof. Bacevich notes that President Bush was fully aware of it.

His presidency began with the Age of American Triumphalism at its zenith. When Bush entered office in 2001, America's status as sole superpower was self-evident and seemingly irrefutable. As the indispensable nation, the United States presided over a unipolar order. The emery board of globalization was sanding away the world's rough edges and gradually remaking it in America's own image. Commentators vied to find the appropriate historical analogy. The consensus: America was the new Rome, only more so.

Bush's response to 9/11 reflected this widespread sense of assurance and entitlement. The Bush doctrine of preventive war, the president's impatient, with-us-or-against-us attitude, his disdain for international opinion and international law, his confidence that American military power, once unleashed, would quickly bring evildoers to justice or justice to evildoers -- and above all his conviction that the people of the Islamic world thirsted for freedom American-style -- all of these made explicit precepts that had been germinating during the post-Cold War decade of the 1990s. Bush was merely expressing in a crude vernacular -- "Bring 'em on!" -- ideas and attitudes to which the majority of Americans already subscribed.

Today those ideas and attitudes have become the equivalent of an oversized SUV: They no longer sell. Not least among Bush's errors in judgment has been his failure to appreciate just how ephemeral the Age of Triumphalism would prove to be.

Eight years is a pretty short time frame, yet so much happened in those eight years that I think more was at work than the notorious short attention span of Americans. The kinds of sacrifices that the citizenry were asked to make turned out to be pretty drastic.

We were asked to send our sons and daughters off to fight two wars, both of them still ongoing and going poorly seven years later. We were asked to submit to long lines and body searches at airports, some of us were even on "no fly" lists for no known reason which prevented boarding flights altogether. Our rights to privacy were shredded by warrantless searches and spying on our telephone and electronic communications. We've had to endure the opprobrium of the rest of the world for our government's open disdain of the Geneva Conventions and its insistence that torture of those being detained without charges was necessary for our "security."

And then we watched as our economy weakened, faltered, and then failed. That symbol of American success, home ownership, turned into the nightmare of foreclosure for millions of Americans. Jobs were lost and unemployment figures were jiggered to hide the true numbers of Americans unemployed and underemployed. Basic medical treatment became out of reach for millions of those who couldn't afford even the medicine to sustain them. Retirees and soon-to-be-retirees watched their savings evaporate and then watched as this government bailed out businesses "too big to fail," whose executives walked away with multi-million dollar golden parachutes.

In the last year, especially in the last three months, Americans clearly had had enough of being "The New Rome," and understandably so. Prof. Bacevich's conclusion looks to be accurate, but it fails to fully note the deep-seated reasons for the shift in temperament.

Having discovered that being the new Rome entails burdens as well as privileges, Americans have opted out. Although Bush's wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, Joe the Plumber's interest in liberating the greater Middle East or courting a showdown even with a figure as vile as Kim Jong Il is close to zero. Americans are no longer in the mood to chase after distant evildoers. They care about jobs, affordable energy, decent healthcare and restoring their 401(k) accounts. Fix what's broken abroad? No thanks; not until we've fixed what's broken at home. This defines the new normalcy.

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