January 5, 2007
By Alan W. Dowd
As we enter a new year, one gets the sense that the Bush presidency is entering its final, climactic act. With the players just gathering on the stage for Act III, we know little about where it will lead us. But perhaps the first two acts provide hints about what lies ahead.
Act I was brief, lasting barely seven months. It began with a tie election that reflected an exquisitely divided nation and a remarkably carefree period in American history—or so it appeared. Recall that in the opening scene of Act I, the new president asked Americans to “show courage in a time of blessing.” He talked about reclaiming America’s schools, reforming Social Security and Medicare, reducing taxes. There was nothing in his inaugural about a “long, twilight struggle” against jihadists and their patron states, nothing about a conflict passed down from generation to generation, nothing about the sort of sacrifice required to wage and win such a struggle.
President George W. Bush devoted just a few words in that opening scene to building “our defenses beyond challenge, lest weakness invite challenge.” What he didn’t know was that America’s defenses had already been probed, its weaknesses already exploited, by enemies that somehow surprised us by doing exactly what they promised to do.
But before that—before the eleventh day of September was transformed from just another day on the calendar into pivot point of history—Act I featured other antagonists. The new administration was worried about the durability of democracy in Russia, nuclear weapons in North Korea, rogue states with long-range missiles. And then there was the People’s Republic of China.
It was in April of 2001 that a Chinese warplane quite literally intercepted a US Navy reconnaissance plane flying in international airspace above the South China Sea. The mid-air mugging crippled the US plane and forced it to make an emergency landing on Hainan island, where the crew was held for almost two weeks.
Gazing back through the smoke and soot of Manhattan, through the sandstorms and snowstorms of Afghanistan, through the agonies of victory in Iraq and the fragments of a global war waged largely in the shadows, the Hainan incident seems like something out of another century, another time. And in a sense it is.
Talk of a new cold war, this one with the PRC, would be silenced by September 11, 2001.
Which brings us to the end of Act I. Given that it began in an era of carefree disunity, it is ironic that the first act came to close with America maimed and yet united by war—or so it appeared.
The antagonists—or perhaps more accurately, the villains—of Act II were not new to Americans. The Taliban government of Afghanistan had been sheltering Osama bin Laden for years. Bin Laden’s followers had been striking US targets at least since 1993. Saddam Hussein’s regime had been threatening US allies, plotting revenge against the US and flouting the international community for a decade. Before September 11, Hezbollah had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group on earth.
Indeed, the prologue to Act I was full of foreshadowing: There was the USS Cole attack in Yemen, the beastly lynching and rampage in Ramallah, the embassy attacks in Africa, the collapse of any semblance of UN resolve in Iraq, the not-so-secret plan to grow nukes in Iran. As he left the stage, President Bill Clinton himself warned that America was “more subject to global forces of destruction [and] to terrorism.”
Although it had its high points—the stunning domino fall of Kandahar, Kabul and Kunduz in the winter of 2001; the rapid rise of Hamid Karzai the following spring; the lightning march to Baghdad and fleeting moment at Firdos Square; the capture of Saddam and killing of Zarqawi; the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon—Act II was equal parts tragedy and triumph.
When liberation gave way to “a long, hard slog,” there was no Karzai to be found in the deformed country Saddam left behind. After Zarqawi and Saddam’s sons were eliminated, after Saddam was put on death row, the murder and mayhem continued. A year after Lebanon tasted freedom, Syria, Iran and their Hezbollah henchmen fomented a war with Israel—a war that energized the enemies of freedom and demoralized her allies.
Act II staggered to its conclusion sometime between Bush’s second inaugural and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld’s second farewell from the Pentagon.
For many Americans, those of us too young to remember or those of us too oblivious to care, dark and tragic periods like Act II are not supposed to happen, at least not here. The truth, of course, is that America has often limped through such valleys. The harder truth is that times of testing, times of consequence, challenge individuals and nations to do great things, to fail trying or to flinch. Times of peace and purposeless prosperity, as Robert Kaplan reminded us a year before September 11 in his all-too prescient collection of essays, The Coming Anarchy, have a way of producing nations bereft of any sense of history or the wisdom that comes with it, epicurean cultures that confuse entertainment for the sacred, citizens who live only for the moment and governments that do the same.
For good or ill, we can expect the scenery and players to change a bit in Act III. For example, a new Congress promises to play a role. Already, it is pushing for a larger US military.
The PRC will edge closer to center stage (and not coincidentally, so will Japan—a development Americans should welcome). In late December, PRC President Hu Jintao announced plans to propel the PRC into a global naval power. “We should make sound preparations for military struggles and ensure that the forces can effectively carry out missions at any time,” he intoned. To further underline the message, he traded his trademark Western-style suit and tie for a green military uniform.
Along with the race to build or buy a blue-water navy, the PRC continues its massive missile buildup on the Taiwan Straits, its cyber-espionage and preparation for cyber-warfare, its spending spree in Latin America, and its development and deployment of space assets to counter America’s satellite-dependent military. All of this is fueled by annual double-digit increases in military spending, and much of it is aimed at the US. As Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations has reported, a PRC defector recently revealed that Beijing’s leadership considers the United States to be its “main enemy.”
The electoral success of Daniel Ortega and other far-left candidates elsewhere in Latin America portends a sobering plotline for Act III. While it is not fair to view Latin America as a monolith, we cannot overlook the fact that Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and, of course, Cuba are all governed by left-wing or outright Marxist leaders committed to an anti-American creed. Mexico and Peru narrowly escaped in 2006. The nightmare scenario is for these governments to somehow link up and form an anti-American bloc in this hemisphere.
Of course, some of the scenery—and villains—will carry over from Act II.
Iraq will continue to serve as a backdrop for domestic and diplomatic affairs. It has, after all, been a part of America’s story since 1990. The elder Bush handed it off to one Clinton, who handed it off to the younger Bush, who may hand it off to another Clinton. How poetic and tragic.
Syria will keep trying to bleed the US out of the neighborhood. Elections in Syria are scheduled for March, and the US is hoping to turn them into a springboard for opponents of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. According to documents obtained by Time magazine, Washington may be funneling resources to Syria’s opposition parties. Perhaps it will help. Perhaps it won’t. It certainly can’t hurt.
A nuclear North Korea promises more missile mischief and more surprises, as does its strange bedfellow in Iran. Indeed, Iran will grab more of the spotlight in Act III. And if late December is any indication, the Iranian regime may be getting more attention than it wants. On the same weekend US diplomats won unanimous approval at the UN Security Council on a resolution imposing sanctions against Iran for its outlaw nuclear program, US troops conducted a series of raids in Iraq exposing Tehran’s interference in the democracy-building mission. Captured were Iranian military officials, Iranian diplomats believed to be collaborating with elements inside Iraq to carry out attacks, and unspecified evidentiary materials.
As one US official put it, “This event validates our claims about Iranian meddling.” Another told TheNew York Times the operation yielded “evidence that the Iranians are deeply involved in some of the acts of violence.”
Perhaps it also sends a message to Tehran that the gloves are finally coming off. That may be the only way to prevent Act III from ending the way Act I ended—in tragedy.