Who the hell are we, America?
Who are we Americans? What do we stand for?
We used to be exceptional, a bastion of freedom, even though in the 50s, 60s and 70s we had a terrible foreign policy, backing horrible thug dictators everywhere as long as they were against Communism. But we had the good fortune of splitting the world between us and Russia, who were nowhere near as attractive as us -- so we looked good by comparison. Nobody was clamoring to immigrate to the Soviet Union.
America was sold as a place where you could come to realize your dreams. Maybe get rich. At least give your kids a better start in life than in most other places.
America was also the world's honest broker of world problems. Clinton did a pretty good job in Ireland, and even in the former Yugoslavia, when he bombed the Serbians into stopping their ethnic cleansing. He also tried to solve the problem of Israel and Palestine, but Arafat didn't turn out to be the negotiating partner the moment needed when Israel had a leader in Barak who was willing to make compromises.
Our terrible foreign policy finally came back to bite us in the ass -- rather belatedly and unfairly, really, since our track record in the 90s was not nearly as horrible it had been before. Anyway, this weird guy Osama Bin Laden struck at us on 9/11 because of the presence of our troops near Mecca in Saudi-Arabia -- his home country that gave his family much riches and props, but didn't give him any. After that, we pretty much played into his hands when, instead of getting out the Middle East, we actually invaded an Arab country and acted like the arrogant imperialist we'd been back in the 60s. So now the Arabs in the street hate us, even though we seem to be trying our level best to install democratic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan we found an OK leader for the country, something we haven't managed in Iraq. The man we originally backed there, Ahmed Chalabi, just didn't have Iraqi support, even though he's managed to install himself as the overseer of the country's oil. The biggest leader in the country, Al-Sistani, is a cleric we cannot control -- in fact, he controls us: he forced us to have elections there and give the choice of leadership to the Iraqis themselves, quite a novel solution that we now find acceptable. None of our nominated leaders have met with popular acclaim there (unlike our choice of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, whom its warlords don't seem to mind, perhaps because he's always had the good sense to leave them alone).
So now, where are we? Well, we're hobbled by a rather peculiar administration, who are driven by ideology and cronyism to the point of incompetence. They've ducked our responsibility as the leader of the world from the start: in the first place by letting the Israelis and the Palestinians try to work out their own problems -- which may have been a good policy, even if it was an abdication -- and in the second place by walking away from our global responsibility as the world's biggest polluter, when Bush tore up the Kyoto protocols.
Our Administration had an agenda that it concealed from the public when it ran for office -- an agenda of invading Iraq, of cutting taxes for rich people, of being business-friendly to the point of destroying the environment, and of trying to starve government itself by dismantling social programs and even getting rid of Social Security, the most popular and effective social program we have. Bush ran as a "compassionate" conservative, arguably the most outrageous and bizarre bit of bullshit ever perpetrated on American voters.
Events have both helped and hindered Bush policy. 9/11 helped sell the Iraq war. But Enron, Worldcom and other scandals have hindered business-friendliness, even though the already flourishing energy, pharma and credit card companies have gotten a lot of help from this Administration. One shudders to think what other pieces of corporate welfare may have gotten through if Enron and Worldcom hadn't exposed the fraudulent greed of some of our leading capitalists. As for the Iraq War, if it was an attempt to establish another friendly puppet government in the Middle East because the Saudi royal family may not be able to hold on to Saudi-Arabia forever, it blew up in our faces.
Our military leadership of the world is about the only piece of US leadership that the current administration has been able to exercise, but at the same time it has shown that the most our military leadership can do, is get us into trouble. If military leadership doesn't come with an acceptable moral point, it gets you nowhere these days. Iraq is now an economic burden instead of a strategic asset. It has become a moral test, and in Abu Ghraib we lost any moral leadership we may have had. Now Katrina has shown that we can't even take care of business at home properly either, let alone be a credible world leader. In the Far East we seem to have just about ceded the whole region to Chinese leadership, letting them deal with the problem of North Korea. Other measures of our world leadership also show declines. Our universities, still the best in the world, don't attract foreign students like they did before. Our anti-science policies have left new inventions in the hands of nations like South Korea, who've taken a leading role in stem-cell research.
What is there left for us to do in the world? I'll be damned if I know. Perhaps the next administration may concentrate on domestic problems, of which our current administration has saddled us with many. It seems to be the job of the Republicans to make ambitious messes, and the task of the Democrats to clean up after them. The Republicans have certainly left us with the biggest mess to clear up since 1929, what with a stupid war and an almost insurmountable debt load.
Maybe out of the mess we're in now, like the one in 1929, some more socially responsible legislation may emerge. It would be nice to feel proud of being American for a change again, a pride we may only win by doing good things for our own citizens, like addressing the problems of race and class exposed by Katrina.
Whether we'll ever be able to assume the leadership of the world again, is doubtful. We've made the world too suspicious of us. We've used our power stupidly, not prudently. And now there are huge counterweights to our hegemony, in Europe and China. I can see the world gradually moving to the point where everyone is trying to curry favor with the Chinese -- a fourth of the human race, after all -- and here Europe is already doing better than us. In any event, we're really in the world's hands, and at their mercy, since we owe them so much money. Today we're the sick man of the planet.
Maybe we were destined to cease being the world's leader at some point anyway, but the Bush administration has certainly hastened the process. From world leader to world skunk in one administration -- it's been quite an achievement, and it's going to be quite a challenge to see if we have any role left as world leader. Let alone being a country we can be proud of again, or one that actually attracts people looking for a better life.
The time has come for a redefinition of who we are as a nation. We're floundering at the moment, and we may be ready for a good look in the mirror. Who are we? What do we stand for (besides making money, or being intolerant of poor and gay people)? Is there someone who can give us back our pride, our optimism, and our idealism? I'm with those who see not much short-term light for the next ten years. Our current crop of pols, both Republicans and Democrats, don't afford any hope whatsoever for the future. The notion of public service, as opposed to political opportunism, seems to be deader than FDR. Talk about a bunch of special-interest blowhards -- we have a collection of hapless bullshitters and partisan bickerers, who appear to be more detached from real people and our real problems than ever before in our history. When you have one party playing up something like the Terri Schiavo affair, and inserting themselves into a family affair for political gain, and the other party so spineless and agenda-less as to go along with this repulsive charade, you can only shake your head in profound disgust.
Let's hope we're entering a period of self-examination, at the very least. Perhaps a consideration of our real problems as well, like our screwed-up, underfunded public school system. At least our present administration recognized that the way we do education is preparing us for third-world status, even if they don't know how to solve it.
Will we ever attend to our real problems again, however, when the rich control the public agenda through the effect of money on our political process? Perhaps the private sector will have to step in, the way private citzens have stepped in with Katrina. GE has committed itself to environment-enhancing technologies, for example: they see a big profit opportunity there, while the administration still thinks global warming is an unproven theory, like evolution.
Expect America to flounder for at least the next ten years, as we come to grips with reality again, and with our much-diminished influence in the world. It may be quite an adjustment to get used to being just another country on the planet, as screwed-up as everyone else, and maybe more so. After that, someone like Barack Obama might take us back to the higher ideals and places from which we've fallen so hard. Or is it too much to hope that we will one day embody the world's hopes for a better world again?