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Ten Years Later

As President Obama prepared to leave office in 2017, America was in turmoil. Obama had handily won reelection in 2012 after defeating GOP candidate Jeb Bush, who won the nomination at a tumultuous convention meeting in Tampa Bay. Obama emphasized his foreign policy bona fides, pointing to his capture of Osama bin Laden and support for a coup in Pakistan to neutralize Republican claims that he lacked the cojones to lead the fight against terrorism. But the election had been less a vote for Obama than against a third Bush presidency. Indeed, throughout his second term, Obama had to grapple with unemployment in double digits and interest rates that hovered at fifteen percent to attract foreign capital. Rioting in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC, had devastated the inner cities. Bridges were collapsing across the country. Many highways had become impassable. Air travel had become prohibitively expensive except for the ultra-wealthy. The age of mass tourism was over. War veterans, in an echo of the Herbert Hoover era, began staking “Obamavilles” in downtown Washington to protest their measley pensions.

Meanwhile, China had effectively leveraged its stranglehold over American finances—it now owned trillions more in American debt—to blockade and occupy Taiwan. War was raging in the Middle East as well: Israel had successfully bombed Iran’s nuclear facilities but was embroiled in a new conflict with Lebanon that had sent oil prices to $300 a barrel. Both NATO and the European Union were unable to withstand the economic pressures that had ensued and went belly-up. Europe and the United States grappled with a spate of terrorist attacks that continued to emanate from the Middle East. And in America itself, Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for the mess, alleging that their political opponents had learned nothing from September 11th and were plunging the country into an abyss.

 

C ould this dystopian scenario actually occur here, there, and everywhere? Contending that America and its allies are hitting the skids is more intellectually chic than ever. Declinism, you could even say, is on the rise. From Niall Ferguson’s new book Civilization , which predicts the collapse of the West, to former British MP David Marquand’s The End of the West , which points to the ills assailing the European Union, it has become fashionable to bemoan the state of the Western democracies. The obsequies are being said. The catafalque is in preparation. All that’s missing is a formal burial. But the obituary notices proliferating almost daily have it all wrong. Here, friends, is a different proposition: the surprising thing is not how badly America is performing on the eve of the tenth anniversary of September 11th, but how well.

On the day of the attacks, Wall Street crashed. The country was frozen in fear and doubt. President Bush was in hiding until he made a feeble appearance that evening on national television. But America quickly rallied and the economy rebounded. Moreover, Bush’s appearance at the World Trade Center, where he grabbed a bullhorn and announced that America would not be subdued, was a high point of his presidency. No doubt America blundered badly by transferring forces from Afghanistan prematurely and launching a preemptive war against Iraq. Bush and Vice President Cheney miscalculated badly in pressing this decision—and almost singlehandedly resurrected the Democratic Party while they were at it. That America was able to weather their maladroit moves is a testament to the vitality of its democracy, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, to his immense credit, resisted the worst of the depredations on civil liberties contemplated by Cheney in the wake of the 9/11 attack.

America has severe problems ten years later. But it is not doomed. In fact, the assertion that the liberal West is on its last legs is a cliché. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn alleged this in his famously controversial Harvard commencement address on June 8, 1978. It’s worth recalling Solzhenitsyn’s adjurations: Westerners, he said, become “tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists. Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?”

This pessimistic take on courage and convictions was by no means confined to Solzhenitsyn. It was in the intellectual air. Thus Saul Bellow’s novel The Dean’s December , which condemned the Carter administration, sounded a similarly pensive note about liberal Western societies: “We are used to peace and plenty, we are for everything nice and against cruelty, wickedness, craftiness, monstrousness. . . . Our outlook requires the assumption that each of us is at heart trustworthy, each of us is naturally decent and wills the good.” And for good measure, the French journalist Jean-François Revel piled on with his book, How Democracies Perish .

But the liberal West turned out not to be the ninety-eight-pound weakling perpetually getting sand kicked in its face by the Kremlin envisioned by these writers and all their intellectual fellow travelers. Instead, it was the Soviet Union, not the United States, that collapsed. Morose contemplations of decline were replaced by a spasm of triumphalism. Then came 9/11. Since then America and Europe have been searching for a new role and subjected to repeated economic and military hammer blows.

But there is plenty of black ink on the balance sheet. Al-Qaeda is on the run. No new major attack has taken place in America. President Obama has adopted many of the policies to combat terrorism that were originally propounded by the Bush administration. What’s more, the very crises currently engulfing America and Europe—the improvidence of the federal government and the southern European states, the collapse of the Murdoch empire in Britain—may well have a revivifying effect.

For now, the doomsayers have events on their side. But a sober look at the foreign policy profit-and-loss statement suggests that it would be entirely premature to conclude that America is a fading power. Immigration, high technology, a probable budget deal in 2013 that slashes the deficit, and a military that has survived and learned from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—all bode well for America’s future.

Yes, Obama, like an increasing number of Republican candidates for the presidency, recognizes that retrenchment from the numerous commitments America incurred abroad is imperative. But abject retreat from the world? Not ten years after 9/11. Not ever.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the National Interest.

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