Sunday, January 29, 2006

Our Collective Insanity

In the not-too-distant future we will look back on the years 2001-2005 as one of those periods in American history when the body politic lost its hold on reality. Fear has a way of erasing reason and rationality, and the combination of monthly terror alerts (which miraculously halted after the 2004 elections, and just might start again now that November 2006 is approaching), the occasional Osama bin Laden tape, fresh images of planes crashing into buildings, and lingering images of mushroom clouds and chemical attacks, overwhelmed the American psyche.

Don’t get me wrong, there are real threats in the world (as there always have been) and it is only natural that these threats inspire fear. But our leaders are not supposed to stoke our fears, or overreact to them, but to help us respond to our crises sensibly and with intelligence. Under ideal circumstances, a responsible leader (and political party) would have responded to the attacks of 9/11 with a cool-headed and clear message to the American people. This leader would have emphasized that the threat of Islamofascism required new ways of thinking strategically, and of reorienting our military priorities and methods. This leader would have said that a global campaign to halt the spread of WMD would be a top priority, and that winning a war of ideas was crucial since the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world prefer full refrigerators, DVDs, and open societies to blowing themselves up for the cause of jihad. Yes, a well-organized band of very evil men had managed to catch us with our guard down, but in no way was this threat on a scale even remotely close to WW II or the Cold War. The last thing this leader woud have done was to elevate a ragtag bunch of cave-dwelling extremists to such a royal status of evil. If only….

We all know what happened instead and we will pay the price for this blunder of historic proportions for generations to come. All semblance of reason was thrown out, replaced by the bizarre notion that a massive military invasion in the heart of the Middle East in an effort to promote democracy would turn the tide against the terrorists (for whom the presence of U.S. soldiers in the Middle East is one of their primary rallying cries). But we have created exactly what we have tried to avoid: a powerful Al Queda movement firmly entrenched in Iraq. In addition, if even a small percentage of the relatives of the thousands of families who have suffered death at the hands of American soldiers in Iraq swear revenge on us, we have created at minimum tens of thousands of additional enemies that did not exist prior to the invasion. (Not to mention the millions of Arabs who witnessed our atrocities in Abu Ghraib or elsewhere on television and the small percentage who may now be inclined to actively try to harm Americans. Welcome to the reality of 24-hour news cycles in the Arab world.) In addition, the costs of the Iraq War are now estimated to be between $1-$2 trillion; you don’t have to be a raving liberal to believe that this money could have been spent a lot more effectively than on an Iraqi invasion. And instead of a show of power, the invasion of Iraq has dramatically overstretched the U.S. military for all the world to see.

And all the while bin Laden is alive and well, largely because the Bush Administration chose to invade Iraq instead of putting additional military resources into dismantling Al Queda and its top leaders in Afghanistan. Adding another level of irony to an already ironic situation, Bush last week used Osama’s recent tape as justification for his likely illegal wire tapping, saying that Osama’s threats should be “taken seriously”. Thanks for reminding me, Mr. President, but it is you who have continually downplayed Osama’s significance over the past few years, not the rest of us.

Of course, the latest ironies are the most painful and will ultimately fully discredit the Administration’s policies. We finally have a democratically-elected parliament in Iraq, but it is dominated by religious fundamentalists, many of whom are at least marginally aligned with Iran, and the election has largely been viewed as further stoking sectarian divisions. In Palestine, the avowed terrorist organization Hamas is now in charge and who knows where this will lead. With the U.S. and the EU almost certain to cut off aid to the Palestinian government, Hamas is likely to turn to Hezbollah and Iran for finances. And just a reminder, Iran is the Islamic country ruled by religious extremists that is relatively close to obtaining nuclear weapons (and the Iranians are feeling empowered because of our invasion or Iraq). Did I forget to mention North Korea or A.Q. Khan’s WMD racket run out of Pakistan?

If so many lives were not at stake the situation would be almost comical. An administration that can’t even effectively manage or prepare for a hurricane disaster (they are even stonewalling the investigation into Katrina ), or their own signature legislation, the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill (an entitlement fiasco that I’m increasingly convinced was a cynical ploy to undermine faith in government) was entrusted to transform the most volatile region in the world through military means and then rebuild an entire nation? (Here’s an update on the largely failed Iraq reconstruction efforts.)

Looking back, it is almost incomprehensible that a majority of Americans actually believed such nonsense.

We let our fears and irrationality cloud our judgment, and the blame ultimately rests with us. Even I, who disagree with just about everything this Administration does, tried until very recently to give them the benefit of the doubt.

As the years pass we will all have to account for our role in the collective insanity that gripped America during the beginning years of the 21st century. And when faced with another crisis I can only hope that this era will provide a cautionary tale that will help us react with more wisdom next time around.

J.S.

P.S. I am trying to include more links to back up my claims. If there are any glaring omissions please let me know. Thanks.

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