The American nation appears not only immensely distressed and angry about the bombings but surprised too. It cannot understand why anyone should be moved by such hatred against it and, inured from the rest of us by the isolationism of most of its political representatives and its media, it has little idea of the currents swirling against it. An event of this magnitude was not only unimagined, it was unimaginable.
Yet, long before George Bush became president with his forceful in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the world outside on issues as diverse as global warming and anti-missile defences, America had been turning in on itself, to the point of self-destructiveness.
William Pfaff, the astute American commentator, wrote recently that “America is a dangerous nation while remaining a righteous one” and America’s pre-eminent foreign policy observer, George Kennan, ambassador to the Soviet Union during Stalin’s time, wrote quite a few years ago: “I do not think that the United States civilisation of these last 40-50 years is a successful civilisation. I think this country is destined to succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic and enormous in their scope.” And later added that for Americans “to see ourselves as the centre of political enlightenment and teachers to a great part of the rest of the world [is] unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable.”
It would be misunderstanding human nature to believe that most Americans want to hear such thoughts played back to them on their day of grief, victims of an evil deed that compares with the worst of the blood stained twentieth century. Yet they have to know that action produces reaction and not for nothing is anti-American resentment on the increase all over the world, not least in Europe, where there is some astonishment at the way the new American administration has ploughed ahead with its self-interested agenda as if no one else had a legitimate opinion or could perhaps view the same situation in a different light.
Foreign observers do not miss the reports that come out of Pentagon think tanks of America’s need to use this special moment after the defeat of European communism and the break up of the Soviet Union to make sure that America is militarily superior the world over, and that no one, not even its closest allies, should be in a position to tell it what to do.
The US began the new millennium as the most heavily militarised nation on earth. It is the US which poses the military threat to others. At the outbreak of World War II, the US army had only 174,000 men. Today it has 1.4 million in its “standing army” and a ready reserve and National Guard numbering 2.5 million. Despite the end of the cold war, under President Bill Clinton, the US made only a paltry effort to wind down the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers, and instead provocatively insisted on expanding NATO close to Russia’s borders.
The Bush administration, with its declared ambition to abandon the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, solemnly signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, seems unconcerned that this will set in motion events that will unwind hard-won international norms on ending nuclear testing and on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, even hinting that it will understand if China has to increase its nuclear forces or test new nuclear weapons.
I have talked to a range of ordinary Europeans in the last 24 hours and they all say, in the face of the earnest shoulder-to-shoulder rhetoric of their leaders, that America has got itself into this hole by its own disregard for what others think. The first law of holes, of course, is to stop digging – which, of course, is what Washington should firmly have told Israel six presidents ago when it started its foolish and counterproductive policy of building settlements on what everyone knew was Palestinian land. Amazingly, the policy continues with apparent understanding from the Bush administration. While Arab governments wring their hands and young Palestinians fight one of the best trained armies in the world with stones, there are the inevitable few attached to the Palestinian cause who are moved towards serious violence – the suicide bombers and, we don’t know yet, although it is the most likely explanation, the destroyers of the World Trade Centre.
In every political movement – be it the Palestinians or the globalisation protesters in Genoa, there are fringe elements that advocate violence. This does not mean the mainstream of that movement is wrong. It might or might not be. But, right or wrong, there will always be powerful elements of truth contained within it, or the passions and purpose would never be ignited. To meet it eye for eye and tooth for tooth, as Gandhi once said, is to make everybody blind.
America right now is a repository of exhausted ideas, like dead stars. The arrogance of power has produced its inevitable reaction. America is threatened not by nuclear tipped missiles from unknown rogue nations, but by small groups of angry men who, although prisoners of their zealotry, know well enough that much of the world whilst not agreeing with them understands their frustration.
To deal with this effectively requires a new way of looking at the world. George Kennan, the late senator William Fulbright, William Pfaff and others have been arguing what this might be for a long time. On this sad and tragic day one wishes their pens could become mightier than America’s sword.
Mr. Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and author. He contributed this article to the Jordan Times.