Almost eight years ago to the day, George W. Bush, while on vacation in Texas was handed the now-famous memorandum titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike US.” Naturally, the top-secret intelligence brief didn’t make headlines. A news story that did came from Florida where a raft of shark attacks had the nation on tenterhooks. Meanwhile, Jurassic Park III and Rush Hour II were doing brisk business at the box office. The world changed irrevocably weeks later, or so it seemed.
August 2001 was a time of relative global tranquility. There were conflicts, of course. The interminable war in Congo continued—an estimated 2,300,000 people died in eastern Congo between August 1998 and May 2000—as did fighting in Chechnya and Sri Lanka. Tensions on the Korean peninsula percolated, as they did in Kashmir. But compared with bygone eras the world was a peaceful place.
This past weekend, the Obamas arrived in Martha’s Vineyard for an eight-day vacation. The president will undoubtedly receive hair-raising intelligence briefs, perhaps warning of apocalyptic acts of nuclear terror, an incipient swine flu pandemic, or plots by right-wing militias. The brief is sure to contain an assessment of the ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans are dying in both hotspots. The world’s problems appear more immediate, more threatening, more dire. The innocence of yesterday is no more.
That’s the prevailing narrative. Nine-eleven changed everything, we’re told. But did it? For Americans, the attacks shattered the fiction that what happens outside the country’s borders is of little consequence, spurring an interest in global events. Once-exotic places with fanciful names like Mazar-i-Sharif and Fallujah became prosaic. Foreign bureaus at news organizations grew to meet the demand of a newly inquisitive audience. Shark attacks disappeared from the front pages, replaced by in-depth reporting from faraway places. Substance replaced pap. Only it didn’t.
The world didn’t change on 9-11. The US is embroiled in two wars stemming from the attacks—one directly, one not—but foreign campaigns are not aberrant. On the contrary. They’re the norm. The war in Iraq was preceded by a war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan was preceded by a war in Afghanistan fought by proxies. Before that there was Vietnam. And before that Korea and World War II. The list of lesser conflicts with US fingerprints is far more extensive. Conflict, not quiescence, is the norm. American perception that it is somehow inoculated from global events, much less an active participant in them, is a deep-seated and convenient myth subscribed to by a blinkered citizenry that easily forgets its history.
The notion that Americans, woken from their narcissistic slumber, are now engaged in the world is also bogus. Those foreign bureaus at news organizations are closing. Headlines are once-again dominated by escapist pap, this time death by government health care panels, not sharks. That the world even changed because of the attacks of 9-11 is debatable. Whether large-scale terrorism proves enduring is unknown. It might. Or it might be like the scourge of anarchism in the late-nineteenth century, which at its apex claimed the lives of heads of state but subsequently receded quietly. Iraq and Afghanistan are embroiled in conflict, though both were hardly tranquil before 9-11. Meanwhile, Congo and Chechnya remain a mess. The Tamil Tigers were defeated but Sri Lanka’s civil war may well flair up again. The Korean peninsula and Kashmir are typically tense.
The world of today is instantly recognizable. The basic dynamic of industrialized countries jockeying for economic preeminence while most other less-wealthy nations struggle, sometimes violently, holds true. China remains a juggernaut; Russia a nuisance; the Middle East a backwater, and Africa more so. And let’s not even consider France! Conventional wisdom’s got it wrong: the world ahead of the upcoming 9-11 looks a lot like the world on the eve of 9-11.
No indictment is being made here. Quite the opposite. The world is as it always was, despotic and dysfunctional in the main, with pockets of peace and prosperity. America too is as it has always been. By this critical measure, those hoping to land a lasting blow to the US eight years ago failed. They bloodied noses, nothing more. Just look around. The Discovery Channel just wrapped up Shark Week.