The dominant reactions to the horrific bombings on April 15th, the day of the running of the Boston Marathon, as well as the celebration of Patriots Day, have been so far: compassion for the victims, a maximal resolve to track down the perpetrators, a pundit’s notebook that generally agrees that Americans have been protected against terrorist violence since 9/11 and that the best way to prevail against such sinister adversaries is to restore normalcy as quickly as possible. In this spirit, it is best to avoid dwelling on the gory details by darkly glamorizing the scene of mayhem with flowers and homage. It is better to move forward with calm resolve and a re-commitment to the revolutionary ideals that midwifed the birth of the American nation. Such responses are generally benevolent, especially when compared to the holy war fevers espoused by national leaders, the media, and a vengeful public after the 9/11 attacks that also embraced Islamophobic falsehoods. Maybe America has become more poised in relation to such extremist incidents, but maybe not. It is soon to tell, and the somewhat hysterical Boston dragnet for the remaining at large and alive suspect does suggest that the wounds of 9/11 are far from healed.
For one thing, the scale and drama of the Boston attack, while great, was not nearly as large or as symbolically resonant as the destruction of the World Trade Center and the shattering of the Pentagon. Also, although each life is sacred, the magnitude of tragedy is somewhat conveyed by numbers, and the Marathon incident has so far produced three deaths as compared to three thousand, that is, 1/1000th of 9/11. Also important, the neocon presidency of George W. Bush was in 2001, prior to the attacks, openly seeking a pretext to launch a regime-changing war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the 9/11 events, as interpreted and spun, provided just the supportive domestic climate needed for launching an aggressive war against the Baghdad regime. The Iraq War was undertaken despite the UN Security Council failure to lend its authority to such an American deadly geopolitical venture and in the face of the largest anti-war global demonstrations in human history. In 2001, the preferred American grand strategy, as blueprinted by the ideologues of the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution, was given a green light by the Bush/Cheney White House even in the face of the red lights posted both at the UN and in the streets of 600 or more cities around the world.
Although there are many distressing continuities that emerge if the Obama presidency is appraised by comparison with the counter-terrorist agenda of his predecessors, there are also some key differences of situation and approach. Obama came to Washington as outspoken opponent of torture and of the Iraq War. He also arrived after the failed wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, which had devastated two countries, seemingly beyond foreseeable recovery, while adding nothing to American security, however measured. These unlawful wars wasted trillions expended over the several years during which many Americans were enduring the hardships and pain of the deepest economic recession since the 1930s. In other words, temporarily at least, the Beltway think tanks and the government are doing their best to manage global crises without embarking on further wars in a spirit of geopolitical intoxication that was hallmark of the unipolar moment that was invoked by Republicans to chide the Clinton presidency for its wimpish failure to pursue American strategic interests in the Middle East. Remember, as well, that this was the period of quick victorious wars that were also cheap when measured by casualties or resources. The Gulf War of 1991 and the NATO Kosovo War of 1999 were the poster children of this supposed revolution in warfare that enabled the United States and its allies to fight ‘zero casualty wars.’ At least it seems that for the present irresponsible and unlawful warfare are no longer the centerpiece of America’s foreign policy, as had become the case in the first decade of the 21st century, although this is far from a certainty. The war drums are beating at this moment in relation to both North Korea and Iran, and as long as Tel Aviv has the compliant ear of the American political establishment, those who wish for peace and justice in the world should not rest easy.
Aside from the dangers and unacceptability of promiscuous wars, there are other serious deficiencies in how the United States sees itself in the world. We should be worried by the taboo at this moment of 24/7 self-congratulatory commentary imposed on any type of self-scrutiny by either the political leadership or the mainstream media. Unlike the aftermath of 9/11, there are a few hopeful signs of awakening to this one-eyed vision on the part of the citizenry. Listening to a PBS program hours after the Boston event, I was struck by the critical attitudes of several callers to the radio station: “It is horrible, but we in this country should not be too surprised, given our drone attacks that have killed women and children attending weddings and funerals in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Another caller asked, “Is this not a kind of retribution for torture inflicted by American security forces acting under the authority of the government, and verified for the world by pictures of the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib?” And another asked, “In light of the authoritative reports of officially sanctioned torture as detailed in the 577 page report of a task force chaired by two former senators, one a Republican, the other a Democrat, and containing senior military and security officials, has not the time come to apply the law to the wrongdoers during the Bush presidency?” Can we not expect one among our politicians, other than the Tea Party darling Rand Paul, to have the courage to connect some of these dots? Should we not all be meditating on W.H. Auden’s haunting line: “Those to whom evil is done/do evil in return”?
The American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post-colonial world. In some respects, the United States has been fortunate not to experience worse blowbacks, and these may yet happen, especially if there is no disposition to rethink US relations to others in the world, starting with the Middle East. Some of us naively hoped that Obama’s Cairo speech of 2009 was to be the beginning of such a process of renewal, and although timid in many ways, it was yet possessed of a tonality candidly acknowledged that relations with the Islamic world needed fundamental moves by the US Government for the sake of reconciliation, including the adoption of a far more balanced approach to the Palestine/Israel impasse. But as the months passed, what became evident, especially given the strong pushback by Israel and its belligerent leader, Bibi Netanyahu, were a series of disappointing reactions by Obama, which could be described as an accelerating backpedaling in relation to opening political space in the Middle East.
Now at the start of his second presidential term, it seems that Obama has given up altogether, succumbing to the Beltway ethos of Israel First. Obama has acknowledged the constraints on his freedom to maneuver on these foreign policy issues, and seeks to confine his legacy ambitions to such domestic concerns as immigration, gun control, and health care. In so doing, he is virtually abandoning the international agenda except to manage crisis diplomacy in ways that do not disturb the global status quo or weaken America’s global reach. Obama’s March trip to Israel was highlighted by his March 21st speech in Jerusalem, which was delivered as a love letter to the Israeli public rather than qualifying as a good faith effort to demonstrate his belief in a just peace. Such obsequious diplomacy was a disappointment even to those of us with low expectations in what the White House is willing to overcome the prolonged ordeal of the Palestinian people.
Aside from the tensions of the moment, self-scrutiny and mid-course reflections on America’s global role is long overdue. Such a process is crucial both for the sake of the country’s own future security and also in consideration of the wellbeing of others. Such adjustments will eventually come about either as a result of a voluntary process of self-reflection or through the force of unpleasant events. How and when this process of reassessment occurs remains a mystery. Until it does, America’s military prowess and the abiding confidence of its leaders in hard power diplomacy makes the United States a menace to the world and to itself. Such an observation is as true if the more avowedly belligerent Mitt Romney rather than the seemingly dovish Barack Obama was in the White House. Such bipartisan support for maintaining the globe-girdling geopolitics runs deep in the body politic, and is accompanied by the refusal to admit the evidence of national decline. The signature irony is that the more American decline is met by a politics of denial, the more rapid and steep will be the decline, and the more abrupt and risky will be the necessary shrinking of the global leadership role so long played by the United States. We should be asking ourselves at this moment, “How many canaries will have to die before we awaken from our geopolitical fantasy of global domination?”