In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Americans experienced a mixture of fear and warmth, a quickening of the national spirit. The extraordinary heroism of the firefighters, police and others in coping with death and destruction rebuked the mood of “infectious greed” generated by this era of market dominance. Civil servants and soldiers, even government itself, were accorded new respect in the face of real dangers and collective need. These developments contained a hopeful thread for reconstructing our frayed democracy.
Adding to the sense of possibility were the expressions of sympathy and solidarity from around the world. We Americans, so often the object of envy or criticism, found ourselves the recipients of a great outpouring of concern, with countries all over the globe condemning the callous, fanatical terrorism that could turn an airplane full of ordinary people into a weapon of horrific destruction.
But the moment was brief and did not last. One year later, we mark not only the terrible loss of life suffered that day but the tragic failure of American leadership since then.
Abroad, the Bush team’s initial military victory in breaking up Al Qaeda cells and routing their Taliban protectors in Afghanistan has been tarnished by a stream of postwar revelations of needless civilian deaths from US bombs and of mistreatment of Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners. Meanwhile, the United States is failing the challenge of rebuilding Afghanistan, leaving its people facing the same chaos, violence and extortion that prevailed under the warlords whose depredations helped usher in the Taliban regime.
America’s early success in mobilizing an alliance against Al Qaeda has been squandered. Rather than pursuing a limited military action in Afghanistan designed to strike a swift blow against the terrorist leadership responsible for the attacks and then joining in a sustained, worldwide policing action to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, the Bush Administration has exploited the tragedy as a license for an endless war against endless enemies. It has used September 11 to consecrate an American empire claiming the right to impose its writ worldwide.
When the President targeted his spurious “axis of evil” and announced a new doctrine of “pre-emptive attack,” he alarmed allies everywhere. As Jonathan Schell writes in this issue, Bush has claimed “a radically new conception of America’s role in the world,” asserting that it has “the right to overthrow regimes by military force at its sole discretion.” And now, under this unexamined doctrine, the President and his national security team relentlessly tout inevitable war with Iraq, dismissing the opposition of many US generals and much of the Republican foreign policy establishment.
Whether it is on the issue of invading Iraq or the desirability of an International Criminal Court or what must be done to bring about peace in the Middle East or the need to take seriously the dangers of global warming, the Administration disdains the opinions of even our oldest allies, making US leadership a source of resentment rather than hope. Such actions, South African Breyten Breytenbach writes, have led to the feeling that America is a cowboy state that “has made the world a much more dangerous place for the rest of us.” No US government has been this isolated since the 1920s.