Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Unilateral America continues to haunt us

Barack Obama's first year in office has not wiped away the legacy of misguided decisions that preceded him.

NEW YORK — The first decade of the 21st century is over, and not a moment too soon for many Americans.

The decade made short work of belying the widely held assumptions of the millennium celebrations 10 years ago.

First, the 9/11 attacks shook and ultimately shattered the so-called “unipolar” moment as the reaction of the United States failed to carry the day either on the battlefield or in the court of world opinion.

Then, just to put a big, broad line under the lesson, the economic hubris that funded “unipolarity” collapsed, too, ending a hallucinatory moment when supposedly serious economists argued that the days when the world’s economy was subject to cyclical swings of boom and bust were over.

The One or the Many?

For many of those now summing up the decade, the past 10 years read like an indictment of one man, George W. Bush, which is not surprising since eight of those years coincided with his presidency.

“If Dickens proclaimed of the 1790s revolutionary era in France that it was the best of times and the worst of times, the reactionary Bush era was just the worst of times,” writes Juan Cole, the hard-blogging University of Michigan Middle East expert who became a leading critic of U.S. policy in Iraq. “I declare it the decade of the American oligarchs.”

But that vastly oversimplifies the extent of the disaster that befell America during the first decade of the 20th century. Bush, after all, is in his rocking chair in Crawford, Texas, presumably unable to add to his achievements.

Yet the legacy of misguided decisions — including many which reach back to previous Democrat and Republican administrations — has not been wiped away by the election of a new leader, even one as clearly different as Barack Obama. As his first year in office demonstrates, the baggage of the unilateral America continues to haunt us. Even a short list has to include:

  • Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Our arrogant tendency to cite international principles (nuclear nonproliferation, free navigation of the seas) when they benefit us, and to break them at will (Geneva Convention, Kyoto Protocol) when they don’t
  • Our disgusting habit of borrowing against the future of our children to fuel the fallacy that our country can defy economic gravity and depend on our biggest potential adversary (China) as a benevolent creditor, which has created a society in which wealth has become so unevenly divided that we fit the profile of a mid-20th century Latin American democracy

None of this is solely the work of the man from Crawford, happy as I am to know he is living in that ZIP code once more. The cult of home ownership that banks and politicians exploited to create the real estate bubble which almost sparked a global depression began with Roosevelt and was raised from progressive policy to the status of religious dogma by Ronald Reagan (and his too-oft overlooked tutor, Margaret Thatcher).

The unleashing of the banking sector from any coherent form of regulation can be traced to Reagan, as well, though the wound that cut most deeply, most experts agree, was the partial repeal in 1999 of the Depression-era firewall called the Glass-Steagall Act. That move, an act of the Republican Congress that could have been vetoed by Clinton, was instead praised by his Treasury secretary, Lawrence Summers, as creating “a system for the 21st century.” Summers, of course, is now Obama’s chief economic advisor.

If Democrats must share the blame for going off the cliff, though, the Republicans who surrounded Bush for much of the decade were driving the car. The 2000 election, controversial as it was, still put a candidate in office who famously promised the foreign policy of “a humble nation, but strong.”