- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

The commemorations are over and the tears all dried. Memories of September 11 quickly have given way, once again, to the usual diet of faux debates and finger pointing that substitute for thoughtful discussion about how to make us more secure. Dozens of scholarly books have been published about the intersection of fanaticism, weapons of mass destruction, religion, the politics of petroleum and the potent mix of anger and despair. Yet, it appears most politicians remain more comfortable mouthing simple platitudes and vilifying their opponent than giving us informed insights or inspiring confidence among voters that we have leaders who understand today’s challenges.

It was not always this way in America. Five years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, with the surrender of Japan almost 16 months behind us, we slowly but surely began to comprehend our role and responsibilities in a new world order.

In the years leading up to and including World War II, the United States forever left behind any notion that it could remain isolated, and with remarkable energy and determination remade itself into a superpower. With the contemporaneous emergence of the Soviet Union as an opposing force, the lines were clearly drawn, not only for the principals but for much of the rest of the world. The only question was where and how the ideological, economic and military battles would be fought.

To improve the odds of success, we built an international edifice of institutions, organizations and political structures that governed the new order and provided like-minded allies unity of purpose even when coordinated action was elusive.

Five years after September 11, no such clarity exists. We are a nation seemingly adrift at sea, unsteady and unnerved by challenges barely understood and about which there is little consensus even among the so-called experts. As far as the eye can see, a variety of interchangeable enemies we label as fanatics hold us hostage to our fears, increasingly vulnerable and uncertain about our national and personal security, while our elected leaders offer little comfort and even fewer credible prescriptions to ease our anxieties.

How did America reach this point?

Within a couple years, television will bring us specials to mark the 20th anniversary of our victory in the Cold War, though by now most Americans realize that the last one standing in the fight for supremacy in a unipolar world ends up bearing enormous, unexpected burdens. Surely we have no regret about winning, but the victory turns out to be no great honor when it means forever having to wear the bulls-eye.

But our reaction to witnessing the end of an era, when Berliners literally sledge-hammered the status quo, was to have a decade-long party. As far as most Americans were concerned, the world was finally and conclusively safe for capitalism, and the 1990s demonstrated what a market economy could produce when our attention wasn’t distracted and our resources weren’t diverted. Though growth was uneven, and troubling inequality of wealth persisted, the U.S. once again was at the forefront of ingenuity, leading a new global information economy with an explosion of entrepreneurial energy.

Yes, proverbial pimples on the elephant’s behind occasionally required attention: the Balkan wars, a brazen Saddam once again invading a neighbor, the first attack on the Twin Towers that was defined as a failure and thus quickly forgotten, and even the fiasco in Mogadishu. (Of course, genocide in Rwanda, much like in Sudan today, brought only inattention.)

None of these, even taken together, set off alarms for an American public luxuriating in the collective good times. They were relegated to “out of sight, out of mind” status, with few among us expected to sacrifice, or prepared to consider the implications for global security.

How else could the nation afford to become consumed with the frivolity of a three-year-long obsession about a president’s unseemly sex life? Perhaps that’s what the End of History was supposed to look like.

If so, we were looking through very narrow blinders, and the shock and awe of September 11 was greater for having occurred in the midst of our self-absorbed indulgences. That is not to say that the Clinton administration did not confront dangers: sometimes effectively, sometimes late and sometimes only cosmetically. But mostly the public did not want to be bothered.

Future generations eventually may judge that President Clinton’s greatest crime, which could only have reached historic stature with the aid of his boorish accomplice, Kenneth Starr, was to breed a level of cynicism so great that Americans viewed even his administration’s most determined response to the growing threats to national security as merely politically inspired, a supposedly transparent effort to wag the dog.

At the same time, the big thinkers in the foreign policy establishment were busy debating how to construct a 21st century model in which America could sit for as long as possible atop the unipolar pyramid of power, eventually having to fend off inevitable challenges from India and China, requiring the U.S. to focus attention and resources on the Pacific Rim.

Of course, none of this slowed the growth of religious and political extremism and intolerance. Nor did it diminish the appetite of fundamentalists, including those who insist their Holy Books provide license and guidance on how to alter history to their liking, to acquire the means to accomplish their ends.

We watched over and over for decades, sometimes clinically and sometimes in horror, as the world slowly seemed to come unhinged, though never in a way that suggested concern for our national security: Lebanon collapsing into civil war, with impoverished Shi’ite overrun by the PLO, and Maronite Christians isolated among a variety of increasingly agitated Muslims; suicide bombers emerging from the slums of Sri Lanka to export their craft; a confusing Iran-Iraq war upon which most Americans cast a pox on both houses; homegrown Japanese Red Army terrorists blowing up Jews in Europe; and an apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo unleashing sarin gas in Tokyo’s subways; Russian separatists, Italian Red Brigades, German Bader Meinhof — the list goes on and on, but we always convinced ourselves it was happening at a safe distance.

Unable to compute the radical changes in modern conflict that provide small numbers of zealots the capacity to dramatically impact lives, and entire nations, anywhere on the planet, the surprise of September 11 was, or should have been, the mother of all wake-up calls.

If ever there was an opportunity for genuine political leadership to step forward, this was it. Surely in a democratic nation of nearly 300 million well-educated and industrious souls we could find a few leaders to offer the wisdom and perspective required.

But 14 months after the attack, in the first national election following September 11 — the 2002 congressional elections — we witnessed a truly deplorable race to the bottom.

On one side was the White House, intent on shamelessly politicizing a national security crisis and vigorously hyping untruths about Iraqi nuclear programs to generate public support for going to war in Iraq, even before our critical mission was accomplished in Afghanistan. The poster boy for the Republican strategy was Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, fated to be remembered only for verbally bludgeoning as patriotically unworthy Sen. Max Cleland, whose service to country did not end even after he came home from Vietnam without three limbs.

On the other side was a Democratic Party so unaccustomed to tackling national security head on that it insisted on ending the debate about the virtues of use of force in Iraq as quickly as possible so that the public might instead consider who had a better health care or prescription drug plan. Evidently, too few Democrats had the capacity to understand that it no longer was politics as usual, and that the old election standbys of Social Security and other domestic triggers would not work in the aftermath of this generation’s equivalent of Pearl Harbor.

Neither party changed its ways significantly by 2004.

Today, things seem to be going from bad to worse. The president’s inexcusable incompetence in utterly failing to bring security to Iraq after deposing Saddam has led to widespread chaos in that country, with nearly 2,700 American soldiers dead; failure for the United States in an unforgiving region that no longer sees us as offering hope, much less solutions; a presidency immobilized while critical international and domestic issues fester; a world of friends and foes not much impressed with the quality of our leadership ability and surely not looking at America as a beacon; and a deeply cynical American public, all the more angry because it has been virtually abandoned at a time when leadership matters most.

Perhaps, as a nation, we are at the stage when it is darkest before the dawn. Maybe the deep longings we feel individually and collectively for a safer, less vulnerable America will be fulfilled, as they have been before throughout American history. But our future will not be secured simply because we wish for it to happen: while a rendezvous with destiny is a certainty, it’s the outcome that hangs very much in the balance.

To say the least, this would be a particularly fine time for someone with talent and ideas to step up and recapture the imagination that previous generations of Americans used for inspiration at difficult times in the life of our nation.

Norman J. Kurz until recently served as communications director for Sen. Joe Biden and spokesman for Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee. He now runs the Kurz Co.

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