By Chris Cote
I have never fought in a war, but for the majority of my memorable life my country, the United States, has been in one. The United States emerged triumphant in the Cold War shortly after I was born and throughout the 1990s exerted its military power in a number of small affairs throughout North Africa and the Middle East. This involvement in the region expanded and escalated immensely during the 2000s. At the same time, Americans and many others willingly traded in political freedoms and compromised their democracies for nominally greater security. Three recent events—the end of the Iraq War, the continuing Arab Uprisings, and the surprising death of Osama bin Laden—have opened the way for the United States to reflect on its role in the global affairs. I am twenty four years old and I have acknowledged the shifting state in world affairs and America’s necessarily smaller role in them. I am looking forward to a future as an American whose country is not intractably occupied abroad and able to focus on more urgent priorities at home and a more narrow conception of vital interests abroad. Instead of clawing to its possessions and interests abroad, the United States should shrink its role abroad, and polish off its tarnished political system at home, the political system responsible for its initial greatness.
Growing up in Massachusetts
I was born on a snowy April day in the waning years of the Cold War. The long ideological and physical battle between the East and West—like the concurrent struggle between the Celtics and the Lakers—had to come to an end. Eastern Europe began its difficult transition to democracy and scholar Francis Fukuyama informed us that we had arrived at The End of History (a discouraging time to be born). As the Soviet Union fell, the United States expanded its presence in other regions, especially the Middle East. Some found this military and economic reach, largely meant to control access to oil resources and other national security interests, discomfiting. Osama bin Laden was one of these people and he spent the 1990s amassing a large following and planning and executing several successful (and several botched) terrorist attacks on the United States and its properties around the globe.
I was listening absent-mindedly in my second week of high school history class when two planes tore down the Twin Towers. I don’t remember what we were learning but I remember watching the two planes hitting the towers, on loop, for the rest of the day. The look on the Vice Principal’s face when he interrupted class to inform my teacher will not leave my head. I was only fourteen years old and I didn’t know what the Twin Towers were, never mind who had just knocked them down.
President George Bush, addressing the nation and the world nine days later, announced that the United States would fight terrorism until it was gone. Understandably, we Americans eagerly accepted the idea. He led the American people carefully through the nuances of who attacked us, and clearly noted that he respected the Muslim religion. But then, in the same speech, he said “you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists,” thus neatly dividing the world into two: those aligned with the United States and those not. “Whether we bring justice to our enemies, or enemies to justice,” said President Bush, “justice will be done.” Thus began America’s ten year head hunt, the War on Terror.
It is politically convenient, when you have a populace willing to go along, to separate the world into good and evil. As a popular British philosopher said, we have a tendency to make right and true that which is familiar, and to make wrong that which is strange. This is lazy, and laziness has repercussions. The US public didn’t bother to follow the divisions that President Bush spelled out clearly at first—that our war is not against Islam or with Arabs, but against terrorism. Shortly after stumbling out of the Cold War’s bipolar rivalry, the US managed to find its way into another. Between the 1990s and 2000s, Boston changed the Celtics-Lakers rivalry for the Red Sox-Yankees. And as a war was launched with full support, a whole region was demonized in American eyes.
President Bush leveraged this confusion to lead the country into Iraq in 2003. When the US took Baghdad I was in sophomore year Spanish class, where I watched on TV the statue of Saddam fall. The Red Sox finally shed its decades-long curse and won the World Series in 2004, but the hometeam was not so successful in international events. That same year, the American torture of prisoners of war in Abu Ghraib came to public attention. International perception of America as protector shifted toward America invader and abuser. The most ardent, willfully ignorant patriot still argued that America was in the right in its torture, but these realizations marked the end of many who had supported US efforts until this point.
America’s war against fear was accompanied by a war of fear at home. Americans eyed the threat of terrorism like a man without an umbrella might a gravid rain cloud. “Of course it’s worth that pat down and those extra minutes in line, you never know when we might be attacked next.” (We phrase everything passively because we don’t think hard enough about whom is doing the attacking—it’s just “them.”) Meanwhile, just like for our fellow men tortured abroad or held in Guantanamo Bay prison without indictment, Americans’ civil liberties evaporated into the desert sun. Forget protesting your loss of liberties to the federal government, you couldn’t even convince your grandmother that any risks were worth taking, or that the apocalypse was not so near. Americans, already obese with fear, heaped more on their plates in complacent obeisance to larger, and largely ineffective, security measures.
The College Years
The Afghanistan War and the Iraq War continued while I entered college, where I studied international relations, economic development, and environmental policy. I learned extensively about Latin America, and in Buenos Aires I studied the social and economic lacuna created by years of dictatorship and genocide in Argentina and throughout the region.
A similar social and economic gap has taken root in the United States. Fiscal imbalance is the first consequence the next generation of Americans will face, if we make it out of this one. The United States has spent more than $1,000,000,000,000 (one trillion dollars) on the War on Terror since 2001. In my first economics class I learned about opportunity cost: for FY2011 the United States has projected $107.3 billion in spending for the War in Afghanistan, the same cost as 19.3 million Pell Grants for prospective college students or one year of VA medical care to 13.8 million military veterans. Defense spending has climbed steeply since 2001. This defense spending, coupled with tax cuts, has pushed American debt to new levels, levels that may put the government on hold unless the ceiling can be raised. Osama bin Laden’s attack on New York and Washington in September 2001 was not his greatest moment of triumph—surely that came watching the US squander its money chasing him over every mountain and inside each cave of Afghanistan and Pakistan, stopping along the way in Iraq and losing its credibility at home and the little that was left abroad. The economic consequences of the War on Terror are enormous; the deficit is Washington’s biggest debate at the moment.
The number of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 is around 6,000. And even one death is a lifetime of anguish for a family member. I would argue, however, that suicide and PTSD are the real American human tolls of the war. Families are broken and young men and women come home lost, without organization or commands in their lives. Estimates of total deaths for Iraqis and Afghanis are incredibly varied but are somewhere between 100,000- 900,000. This loss will have intangible consequences, but at best, with the death of so many working age males, it will hinder those countries’ ability to develop for a generation.
Perception, although intangible, has been the largest casualty of the wars. Americans have demonized Arabs and Muslims, and from the opposing bench the Middle East, and eventually a large part of the rest of the world, saw Americans as intruders with their own religious and state extremism. This tension has only driven us toward more violence and greater support for the wars. When I left college, the world was bankrupt. Because of the underperforming US economy, it was easy to ignore what was happening abroad. But tensions continued and the number of killings grew.
I have been out of college for two years now and am a teacher in northeast Brazil. My travels abroad, from Morocco to Bolivia, have been humbling. I know little of the history and beliefs of other cultures, and so must proceed with care, constantly reassessing my privilege and place in the world. I hope that the United States has learned a similar lesson in its recent ventures abroad.
In the last four months, world affairs have changed drastically. Three events have opened a new path for a boost in mutual perception between the United States and Muslims. First, the Iraq War officially ended. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers died in a war that began under false pretenses. The country is still organizing itself amidst emerging from civil war, but the US departure is a major step forward, for both countries and mutual public perception. Second, the Middle East Uprisings have shown the West that the region’s people are not satisfied living quietly and complacently on oil money, and that they too desire political freedoms. Al-Jazeera’s emergence in the United States is an important side effect—direct access to more information will help bridge the cultural gaps. Third, the NAVY Seals killed Osama bin Laden earlier this week, a decade long manhunt finished. But how far did we play into his plan of economic self-destruction? America has emerged victorious, but only in a narrowly-defined context. For the majority of my life the United States has been involved in a war in the Middle East, usually with little knowledge of its whereabouts and what would happen next.
The United States’ projected power may not be in threat of decline, but it should still narrow its interests abroad. The end of Osama is not the end of Al-Qaeda or terrorism, but it is a chance for the United States to reassess its priorities.
The question of energy dependence cannot be forgotten, as it is the foundation of American interlocution in the Middle East. Indeed, it is one of the most important questions facing the United States going forward. But the United States could do more to tackle the problem: proposals for greater energy independence have changed little over the past decades, and government financial support for renewable energy is slim. In an editorial this week, Arianna Huffington pushed President Obama to demonstrate his commitment to freedom from Middle East oil by ending subsidies to oil companies and redirecting them to renewable energy development. And low oil prices encourage greater consumption. A country is in trouble when its people are willing to sacrifice personal freedoms before economic luxury in the name of energy security. The energy issue is important, but military intervention and occupation in the Middle East only hurts the United States in the long run. We must search for better solutions.
There are several questions which the American people must now ask themselves as we come to this possible turning point: What is the honest state of the Union at home? What is the state of our Union in a global context? What have we sacrificed and what have we gained in the last ten years?
A prominent Washington columnist wrote last week that Osama did not achieve his goal of bankrupting the United States—that while he is dead and unable to change anything, we can still change the trajectory of our country. To do so, however, the American people must learn the lesson from our Arab counterparts and demand that our government understand our global context and act with a new, smaller role abroad. America’s largesse from World War II and the Cold War—the opportunity to assert its will unilaterally throughout the world—has been spent.
The United States can use this moment of opportunity in global affairs to reduce its presence abroad, keep out of the Middle East’s struggle for democracy and focus on its own at home.