Over the past week – 9 to 15 September – on the 18th anniversary of 9/11, I was asked a number of times by various South African radio and television stations to comment on the larger meaning of those attacks in New York City and Washington, DC. The plot had been carried out by a football team’s worth of very angry young men, buoyed by the eschatological ideology of al-Qaeda. While they were armed only with garden variety box cutters, their efforts have had enormous consequences.
Meanwhile, in the midst of these discussions, the third debate for 10 declared candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination took place on Thursday, 12 September. While the pack of avowed candidates is shrinking, they too could still field their own football team, although admittedly it would have to be a mixed male/female and seniors one.
Concurrently, the media has been reporting on the latest presidential fiasco as well. This time it was that Donald Trump had offered (and then withdrawn) an invitation for a handshake (and thus the victory lap photo moment) to seal the peace negotiations between the US, the Afghani Taliban, and the Afghan government, to take place at the presidential mountain retreat of Camp David. Astonishingly, given that the Taliban have been harbouring the remnants of al-Qaeda, this Camp David event had been planned for the same week as the 9/11 memorials. The original plan had demonstrated conclusively just how much of a moral tin ear the president bears for anything other than self-aggrandisement or personal profit, despite his frequently professed super-patriotism. Also on display, of course, was his desperate longing for the kind of peace deal that would finally get him selected for a Nobel Peace Prize and the cover of Time magazine.
Finally, the US president’s national security adviser, the predictably Hobbesian John Bolton, the man of whom it has been said, “he never met a war he didn’t like”, was fired by tweet, or jumped to quit the listing Trumpian ship, or, perhaps, he was fired while he was in the midst of jumping ship from the Trump administration? It has been a rather busy, confusing time for many.
Do these events have anything in common? Is there overlap? Yes, rather a great deal, actually. But let’s start at the beginning, a decade before those passenger jets started crashing into signature office buildings in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
Back at the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes in Eastern Europe during 1989-91, the notion of the inevitability of American hegemony, together with a significant dose of triumphalism, took hold. The 1990-91 Iraq War, the one where over 40 nations participated under American leadership (and UN auspices) to drive Iraqi forces from occupied Kuwait, underscored an almost legendary sense of American national omnipotence.
It is no coincidence that at about the same time, historian-political scientist Francis Fukuyama had published his essay (later expanded into a book), The End of History, arguing that the globe had entered into a new age. It was now the time of the lasting success of the liberal democratic, free-market but social welfare-inclined nation-state – and that this geopolitical order would have a gradual but inevitable expansion to include more and more nations.
So there it was, that sense of inevitability again; this time available for everyone to read about in a kind of accessible but scholarly, new holy text. If anything, this time, even more than at the end of World War II when the country stood astride a shattered world, the sense of an American century was palpable in the air. And then, in a mere matter of hours in the end-of-summer morning of 11 September 2001, it was all blown away.
In turn, through anger, fear, and a sense of outrage, “How dare they!”, those attacks triggered the American military intervention in Afghanistan to get at those who had ordered others to carry out those outrages (or who had sheltered such people). The feeling of an America facing an evil ideology manipulated and guided by sinister states fed the growing desire on the part of President George W Bush’s administration to deal decisively with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This, in turn, drew on senior Bush administration figures’ near-religious belief in Saddam Hussein’s complicity in terrorist activities such as 9/11, and their further belief (but in the absence of real evidence) that Iraq was poised on the verge of possessing those weapons of mass destruction.
But now, nearly 20 years later, the US continues to be embroiled in fighting in Afghanistan; there remains an American military force in Iraq; the fighting there helped, in turn, to give rise to Daesh/ISIS; and there was yet another fighting in Syria that merged with the wave of Arab Spring uprisings across the region. Aside from being caught up in three separate, simultaneous theatres of combat, this effort decisively skewed American strategic attention towards the Middle East – and away from pretty much the rest of the globe.
This continued in spite of protestations during the Obama years that the US would henceforth shift decisively towards a renewed focus on East Asia and the Pacific, in both economic and geostrategic terms. Meanwhile, a host of challenges have continued to grow in importance, but are only sporadically being addressed as we enter the final year of Donald Trump’s four-year term of office.
Like Obama and Bush before him, the Trump administration, despite an inchoate strategic vision, has largely also been caught up with these Mideast-South Asian conflicts. This has been the case despite the way he has paid solicitous attention to the tender feelings of his best partners in his bromances with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, his trade conflict with China and his all-over-the-map tariff and other responses to Chinese counteractions, his some-time fanatical attention to Maduro’s Venezuela, his fixation on immigration woes along the US’ southern border, and his creating a litany of unhelpful snit fights with every single one of the country’s traditional allies and the multilateral institutions in which it participates.
All of these problems and American strategic postures have been made that much more complicated or confusing by the continuing churn of senior officials such as now with John Bolton and his two predecessors as national security adviser, and so many others in so many other jobs, the embarrassing roster of unfilled positions, and the substantial, growing cadre of “acting”, unconfirmed senior officeholders.
Meanwhile, the astonishing thing for the Democrats, through all of the wannabe nominees’ individual speeches or in the content of the multi-candidate debates and round tables, has been the virtual absence of substantive discussion about the country’s foreign policy choices and the challenges for the country as part of a global community. So far, at least, there has been very little attention paid by the candidates to the morass that Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda represents. Instead, Democrats have largely spent their time collectively squabbling among themselves over the future shape of the country’s national healthcare coverage, the history of school integration, and proposals to generate additional tax revenue via some form of wealth tax for a panoply of new government social welfare programmes.
Contemplating the most recent debate, David Axelrod, one of the key individuals who had helped guide the Obama campaign and presidency, has argued, “No one made the broadest, most appealing message for change. Can we, as a country, function anymore if we have another four years of waking up to [the Trumpian] turmoil?” As challengers to the incumbent president and as self-described saviours of the country, it falls on the Democratic candidates (and eventually one agreed-upon nominee) to shape – and communicate – a vision of reconnecting to the global community and summoning the national will to address critical challenges with more than a presidential snarl, snark, or primal scream.
Indeed, where in the debates (let alone in the president’s utterances) have there been any discussions of how to rebuild support for democratic practice and ideals across national boundaries, and away from the populist-nativist authoritarianism now on the rise in so many nations?
Similarly, where is the understanding that America’s future will include a serious competition between a rising, self-assured China eager to dominate a whole range of upcoming technologies, as well as the financial, economic, and strategic directions of nations across the Pacific, Africa, Asia, and beyond – rather than squabbles over tariffs on bicycle parts, cellphones, chicken legs, and soya beans? Where is the debate about how best to stave off a global climate catastrophe, rather than the demonisation of scientists and other experts?
Further, where is the vigorous discussion about how to address the vast, unsettling movement of people at a level last seen in Europe at the end of World War II – and globally, perhaps, not since the end stages of the Roman Empire?
And finally, if America is to stay engaged in the Middle East, rather than the simplistic thinking that comes from Jared Kushner, speaking on behalf of his father-in-law, perhaps it is high time to re-examine that unthinking, joined-at-the-hip-ness of America’s ties to the imperial dreams of the Saudi royal dynasty and the aggressive politics of Binyamin Netanyahu’s version of Middle East peace and, instead, define a different approach and hoped-for set of outcomes?
The American people clearly deserve (but, sadly, may not get) to hear sufficient straight talk and honesty that they will no longer be hypnotised for four more years by a potty-mouthed, leering, smart-assed snake oil salesman who pretends to have all the answers and who proffers those too-easy-to-be-believed solutions. The Wizard of Oz was eventually unmasked as an old man whose works were all smoke and mirrors – so where will we find our Toto, now that we really need him? Where, indeed. DM
Adolf Hitler was the first European leader to ban human zoos.