In every aspect of human existence, change is a constant. Yet change that actually matters occurs only rarely. Even then, except in retrospect, genuinely transformative change is difficult to identify. By attributing cosmic significance to every novelty and declaring every unexpected event a revolution, self-assigned interpreters of the contemporary scene — politicians and pundits above all — exacerbate the problem of distinguishing between the trivial and the non-trivial.
Did 9/11 “change everything”? For a brief period after September 2001, the answer to that question seemed self-evident: of course it did, with massive and irrevocable implications. A mere decade later, the verdict appears less clear. Today, the vast majority of Americans live their lives as if the events of 9/11 had never occurred. When it comes to leaving a mark on the American way of life, the likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have long since eclipsed Osama bin Laden. (Whether the legacies of Jobs and Zuckerberg will prove other than transitory also remains to be seen.)
Anyone claiming to divine the existence of genuinely Big Change Happening Now should, therefore, do so with a sense of modesty and circumspection, recognizing the possibility that unfolding events may reveal a different story.
All that said, the present moment is arguably one in which the international order is, in fact, undergoing a fundamental transformation. The “postwar world” brought into existence as a consequence of World War II is coming to an end. A major redistribution of global power is underway. Arrangements that once conferred immense prerogatives upon the United States, hugely benefiting the American people, are coming undone.
In Washington, meanwhile, a hidebound governing class pretends that none of this is happening, stubbornly insisting that it’s still 1945 with the so-called American Century destined to continue for several centuries more (reflecting, of course, God’s express intentions).
Here lies the most disturbing aspect of contemporary American politics, worse even than rampant dysfunction borne of petty partisanship or corruption expressed in the buying and selling of influence. Confronted with evidence of a radically changing environment, those holding (or aspiring to) positions of influence simply turn a blind eye, refusing even to begin to adjust to a new reality.
Big Change Happening Now
The Big Change happening before our very eyes is political, economic, and military. At least four converging vectors are involved.
First, the Collapse of the Freedom Agenda: In the wake of 9/11, the administration of George W. Bush set out to remake the Greater Middle East. This was the ultimate strategic objective of Bush’s “global war on terror.”
Intent on accomplishing across the Islamic world what he believed the United States had accomplished in Europe and the Pacific between 1941 and 1945, Bush sought to erect a new order conducive to U.S. interests — one that would permit unhindered access to oil and other resources, dry up the sources of violent Islamic radicalism, and (not incidentally) allow Israel a free hand in the region. Key to the success of this effort would be the U.S. military, which President Bush (and many ordinary Americans) believed to be unstoppable and invincible — able to beat anyone anywhere under any conditions.
Alas, once implemented, the Freedom Agenda almost immediately foundered in Iraq. The Bush administration had expected Operation Iraqi Freedom to be a short, tidy war with a decisively triumphant outcome. In the event, it turned out to be a long, dirty (and very costly) war yielding, at best, exceedingly ambiguous results.
Well before he left office in January 2009, President Bush himself had abandoned his Freedom Agenda, albeit without acknowledging its collapse and therefore without instructing Americans on the implications of that failure. One specific implication stands out: we now know that U.S. military power, however imposing, falls well short of enabling the United States to impose its will on the Greater Middle East. We can neither liberate nor dominate nor tame the Islamic world, a verdict from the Bush era that Barack Obama’s continuing misadventures in “AfPak” have only served to affirm.
Trying harder won’t produce a different result. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates caught the new reality best: “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
To be sure, Freedom Agenda dead-enders — frequently found under K in your phone book — continue to argue otherwise. Even now, for example, Kagans, Keanes, Krauthammers, and Kristols are insisting that “we won” the Iraq War — or at least had done so until President Obama fecklessly flung away a victory so gloriously gained. Essential to their argument is that no one notice how they have progressively lowered the bar defining victory.
Back in 2003, they were touting Saddam Hussein’s overthrow as just the beginning of American domination of the Middle East. Today, with Saddam’s departure said to have “made the world a better place,” getting out of Baghdad with U.S. forces intact has become the operative definition of success, ostensibly vindicating the many thousands killed and maimed, millions of refugees displaced, and trillions of dollars expended.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia remains in the field, conducting some 30 attacks per week against Iraqi security forces and civilians. This we are expected not to notice. Some victory.
Second, the Great Recession: In the history of the American political economy, the bursting of speculative bubbles forms a recurring theme. Wall Street shenanigans that leave the plain folk footing the bill are an oft-told tale. Recessions of one size or another occur at least once a decade.
Yet the economic downturn that began in 2008 stands apart, distinguished by its severity, duration, and resistance to even the most vigorous (or extravagant) remedial action. In this sense, rather than resembling any of the garden-variety economic slumps or panics of the past half-century, the Great Recession of our own day recalls the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Instead of being a transitory phenomenon, it seemingly signifies something transformational. The Great Recession may well have inaugurated a new era — its length indeterminate but likely to stretch for many years — of low growth, high unemployment, and shrinking opportunity. As incomes stagnate and more and more youngsters complete their education only to find no jobs waiting, members of the middle class are beginning to realize that the myth of America as a classless society is just that. In truth, the game is rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many — and in recent years, the fixing has become ever more shamelessly blatant.
This realization is rattling American politics. In just a handful of years, confidence in the Washington establishment has declined precipitously. Congress has become a laughingstock. The high hopes raised by President Obama’s election have long since dissipated, leaving disappointment and cynicism in their wake.
One result, on both the far right and the far left, has been to stoke the long-banked fires of American radicalism. The energy in American politics today lies with the Tea Party Movement and Occupy Wall Street, both expressing a deep-seated antipathy toward the old way of doing things. Populism is making one of its periodic appearances on the American scene.
Where this will lead remains, at present, unclear. But ours has long been a political system based on expectations of ever-increasing material abundance, promising more for everyone. Whether that system can successfully deal with the challenges of managing scarcity and distributing sacrifice ranks as an open question. This is especially true when those among us who have been making out like bandits profess so little willingness to share in any sacrifices that may be required.
Third, the Arab Spring: As with the floundering American economy, so with Middle Eastern politics: predicting the future is a proposition fraught with risk. Yet without pretending to forecast outcomes — Will Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya embrace democracy? Can Islamic movements coexist with secularized modernity? — this much can be safely said: the ongoing Arab upheaval is sweeping from that region of the world the last vestiges of Western imperialism.
Europeans created the modern Middle East with a single purpose in mind: to serve European interests. With the waning of European power in the wake of World War II, the United States — gingerly at first, but by the 1980s without noticeable inhibition — stepped in to fill the void. What had previously been largely a British sphere now became largely an American one, with the ever-accelerating tempo of U.S. military activism testifying to that fact.
Although Washington abjured the overt colonialism once practiced in London, its policies did not differ materially from those that Europeans had pursued. The idea was to keep a lid on, exclude mischief-makers, and at the same time extract from the Middle East whatever it had on offer. The preferred American MO was to align with authoritarian regimes, offering arms, security guarantees, and other blandishments in return for promises of behavior consistent with Washington’s preferences. Concern for the wellbeing of peoples living in the region (Israelis excepted) never figured as more than an afterthought.
What events of the past year have made evident is this: that lid is now off and there is little the United States (or anyone else) can do to reinstall it. A great exercise in Arab self-determination has begun. Arabs (and, arguably, non-Arabs in the broader Muslim world as well) will decide their own future in their own way. What they decide may be wise or foolish. Regardless, the United States and other Western nations will have little alternative but to accept the outcome and deal with the consequences, whatever they happen to be.
A Washington inhabited by people certain that decisions made in the White House determine the course of history will insist otherwise, of course. Democrats credit Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech with inspiring Arabs to throw off their chains. Even more laughably, Republicans credit George W. Bush’s “liberation” of Iraq for installing democracy in the region and supposedly moving Tunisians, Egyptians, and others to follow suit. To put it mildly, evidence to support such claims simply does not exist. One might as well attribute the Arab uprising to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Those expecting Egyptians to erect statues of Obama or Bush in Cairo’s Tahrir Square are likely to have a long wait.
Fourth, Beleaguered Europe’s Quest for a Lifeline: To a considerable extent, the story of the twentieth-century — at least the commonly-told Western version of that story — is one of Europe screwing up and America coming to the rescue. The really big screw-ups were, of course, the two world wars. In 1917 and again after December 1941, the United States sent large armies to deal with those who had disturbed the peace. After the first war, the Americans left. After the second, they stayed, not only providing soldiers to safeguard Western Europe, but also rejuvenating the shattered economies of the European democracies.
Even with the passing of a half-century, the Marshall Plan stands out as a singular example of enlightened statecraft — and also as a testimonial to America’s unsurpassed economic capacity following World War II. Saving continents in dire distress was a job that only the United States could accomplish.
That was then. Today, Europe has once again screwed up, although fortunately this time there is no need for foreign armies to sort out the mess. The crisis of the moment is an economic one, due entirely to European recklessness and irresponsibility (not qualitatively different from the behavior underlying the American economic crisis).
Will Uncle Sam once again ride to the rescue? Not a chance. Beset with the problems that come with old age, Uncle Sam can’t even mount up. To whom, then, can Europe turn for assistance? Recent headlines tell the story:
- “Cash-Strapped Europe Looks to China For Help”
- “Europe Begs China for Bailout”
- “EU takes begging bowl to Beijing”
- “Is China the Bailout Saviour in the European Debt Crisis?”
The crucial issue here isn’t whether Beijing will actually pull Europe’s bacon out of the fire. Rather it’s the shifting expectations underlying the moment. After all, hasn’t the role of European savior already been assigned? Isn’t it supposed to be Washington’s in perpetuity? Apparently not.
Back to the Future
In the words of the old Buffalo Springfield song: “Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
American politicians stubbornly beg to differ, of course, content to recite vapid but reassuring clichés about American global leadership, American exceptionalism, and that never-ending American Century. Everything, they would have us believe, will remain just as it has been — providing the electorate installs the right person in the Oval Office.
“To those nations who continue to resist the unstoppable march of human, political and economic freedom,” declares Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, “we will make clear that they are on the wrong side of history, by ensuring that America’s light shines bright in every corner of the globe, representing a beacon of hope and inspiration.”
“This is America's moment,” insists Mitt Romney. “We should embrace the challenge, not shrink from it, not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender, nor give in to those who assert America's time has passed…. I will not surrender America's role in the world.” With an unsurprising absence of originality, the title of Romney’s campaign “white paper” on national security is An American Century.
Governor Rick Perry’s campaign web site offers this important insight: “Rick Perry believes in American exceptionalism, and rejects the notion our president should apologize for our country but instead believes allies and adversaries alike must know that America seeks peace from a position of strength.”
For his part, Newt Gingrich wants it known that “America is still the last, best hope of mankind on earth.”
The other Republican candidates (Ron Paul always excepted) draw from the same shallow and stagnant pool of ideas. To judge by what we might call the C. Wright Mills standard of leadership — “men without lively imagination are needed to execute policies without imagination devised by an elite without imagination” — all are eminently qualified for the presidency. Nothing is wrong with America or the world, they would have us believe, that can’t be fixed by ousting Barack Obama from office, thereby restoring the rightful order of things.
“Is America Over?” That question adorns the cover of the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, premier organ of the foreign policy establishment. As is typically the case with that establishment, Foreign Affairs is posing the wrong question, one designed chiefly to elicit a misleading, if broadly reassuring answer.
Proclaim it from the rooftops: No, America is not “over.” Yet a growing accumulation of evidence suggests that America today is not the America of 1945. Nor does the international order of the present moment bear more than a passing resemblance to that which existed in the heyday of American power. Everyone else on the planet understands this. Perhaps it’s finally time for Americans — starting with American politicians — to do so as well. Should they refuse, a painful comeuppance awaits.