As much as reflection on the tragedy of five years ago was called for this week, it did not take long for recrimination to seep back into the discussion. We spent Tuesday remembering the losses of life but by Thursday, we were arguing about motivations, movies, and measurements about how "safe" we are in a world which appears to be increasingly unsafe.
It is hard to pursue objective assessments of lessons learned from any experience when there is no consensus on what the experience meant. We have been arguing about "the day that changed everything," but we have not been able to find common ground on how to define those changes, let alone agree on a vocabulary with which to discuss it.
This week Congress was embroiled in debates over resolutions on the successes or failures of the Patriot Act, the findings of a Senate report stating that there was no link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and all the measures that the 9/11 Commission recommended but have yet to be implemented.
This rancor, amidst the arguments about whether we are losing Iraq to a civil war and whether we are slipping backwards in Afghanistan, converges with a Congressional election in November which many see as a benchmark of success or failure for the final two years of the Bush administration. Even if the Republicans manage to hold on to both the Senate and the House with a slimmer margin than they have now, the next two years will be marked overwhelmingly by arguments over what the last six years have wrought, and in particular the legacy of the Iraq war.
Following the departure of U.S. troops from Vietnam in 1975, there was a period of soul searching in the United States which permeated the presidency of Jimmy Carter. It was not only shaped by doubts about the course of American foreign policy, but also about our domestic situation consisting of long gas lines and high interest rates. In 1979, Carter told the American people that they were suffering from a crisis in confidence, that government was ineffective and isolated from the people, and that Congress was torn and twisted by self interests and paralyzed in responding to the real challenges people face.
Carter was defeated one year later by a President who took exactly the opposite tone and declared it was "Morning in America." Of course the eight years of Ronald Reagan's administration were not free of such problems, but he managed to convey a different image of the U.S. to his fellow citizens. Throughout the following years, right through 9/11, there was a widespread optimism about the future, epitomized by the excesses of the nineties, and this despite the fissures that were becoming visible throughout the world, be it in the Middle East, the Balkans, or in Africa. Even at home, the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 did not cause that wave to stop. After all, we had won the Cold War and there was no other force in the world that could match that of the U.S.
Five years after 9/11, with facing fires raging around us, what have we learned about that world and about ourselves? Are we facing that same crisis of confidence Carter pointed at in 1979? Certainly Congress does not seem to have earned any more respect than it had then. We are still overly dependent on oil coming from the most volatile region in the world, the main point of Carter's speech twenty-seven years ago. We have seen shocking picture of the discrepancies within our society in the wake of Katrina as evidence of how many people live close to the edge in the wealthiest country in the world.
And our image and role as the sole remaining superpower has suffered from a serious decline around the world in the wake of Iraq war. The most recent findings of the Transatlantic Trends survey sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, among others, provide sobering reminders of how the public mood in Europe remains highly critical of American policy and of the present White House in particular.
The report also underlines the fact that the American public is divided over the course of American policy, and that the November elections will reveal what that means for Congress and suggest what it might mean for the presidential elections in 2008.
Yet, the fact is that strong political leadership is a rare commodity these days. Throughout Europe, one sees uncertain leadership in many capitals. The future in London and Paris is uncertain. The strength of the coalition in Berlin is being put to the test over domestic issues, although there seems to be no viable alternative to it at the moment. Canada has a minority government and Mexico just managed to agree on who finally won its election.
Voters seem to be unsure about whom they can trust with their futures. The more political leaders engage in slamming their opponents instead of outlining a plan for the future, the more disappointing they appear and the more anxious voters become. Amidst an increasing desire for authenticity in the political marketplace, this is a vicious cycle we see all too often.
As we look back on the pictures of the rubble of the World Trade Center towers, the plume of smoke rising above the Pentagon, or the wreck of a plane in eastern Pennsylvania, there is almost a feeling of nostalgia for the sense of unity felt then, and not just in the U.S. but including so many others around the world. How do we now find our way back to that point? Or is it even possible given all that has transpired since then? The Transatlantic Trends study suggests that there is room for common ground on several fronts. Yet finding a common language to define it will be a challenge for political leaders in dialogue with their respective constituencies as well as with each other.
President Carter ended his 1979 speech by saying that he wanted to listen to the American people responding to the challenges he described. "I will listen and I will act. We will act together," was his message. That is a message we could apply to a much larger arena in 2006.
This essay appeared in the September 14, 2006 AICGS Advisor.
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