The Australian Literary Review

By Geoffrey Garrett

FROM Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to FDR's "righteous might" response to Pearl Harbor, wartime speeches by US presidents have been enduring snapshots of history.

The most obvious candidates from the 9/11 decade would be George W. Bush's address to the US Congress on September 20, 2001, saying: "Our war on terror begins with al-Qa'ida, but it does not end there", and Barack Obama's announcement on May 2 this year that "justice has been done" with the killing of Osama bin Laden.

These speeches describe an arc from the most despicable foreign acts on American soil to the death of their architect at the barrel of US guns. But this "war on terrorism" frame is too narrow for a decade in which the US went from the highest point of American power, confidence and optimism to the country's lowest ebb since the disastrous 1970s, now as then mired in economic doldrums, hamstrung by division, anxiety and uncertainty at home, and diminished by declining authority and respect abroad.

Two different wartime presidential addresses stand out using this wider lens on the 9/11 decade. The first is Bush's proud proclamation on May 1, 2003, that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended", with the president standing in front of the "mission accomplished" banner, marvelling at how far the US-led world had come from the horrors of World War II, and celebrating the magnetic universalism of America's defining credo:

In defeating Nazi Germany and imperial Japan . . . military power was used to end a regime by breaking a nation. Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime . . . We have also seen the ageless appeal of human freedom . . . Everywhere that freedom arrives, humanity rejoices; and everywhere that freedom stirs, let tyrants fear.

The second speech was delivered a little more than eight years later by the man who replaced Bush in the Oval Office, in no small part because he was in so many ways the anti-Bush. When Obama told the world of his decision to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan on June 22 this year, trumpeting America's global might and attraction was the last thing on his mind. Instead, he expressed hope, almost pleading, that closing the book on Afghanistan would hasten desperately needed nation building at home -- so long as it was affordable and so long as America's own internal political war ended:

Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America's greatest resource: our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means . . . And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war.

Obama was speaking as the risk of a second financial crisis and a double-dip recession was increasing daily. The involvement of the Taliban in the future governance of Afghanistan was a given. News that renewed violence rocked still politically gridlocked Iraq was no longer headline worthy. Profoundly unpopular dictatorial regimes in Libya and Syria were attacking their people, but the US and the West were unwilling to go beyond air raids and strong words to stop them.

From this vantage point, the 9/11 decade will not be remembered as the fight for and defence of freedom Bush began or for Obama's subsequent unwinding of Bush's wars: the most likely candidates a few years ago. Rather, the history of the war on terrorism seems destined to be remembered above all as a costly diversion from America's and the world's biggest challenges: the external military threats posed by extremist regimes with, or aspiring to get, nuclear weapons; a rising China deeply connected into the global economy but potentially destabilising the geopolitical order; and a Western capitalist system hoisted on its own petard of leverage and risk against the ticking time bomb of the greying of the baby boom.

There have been tangible wins in the war on terrorism. David Petraeus's successful counter-insurgency surge in Iraq has given democratic stability a fighting chance at the fulcrum of the Arab world. There has been no large-scale Islamist terrorist attack on the West since the London bombings more than six years ago. Bin Laden has been killed and al-Qa'ida is no longer a globally co-ordinated terrorist organisation.

But the financial and human costs of these wins are hard to justify. And the list is long of unfinished business in the war on terrorism. It is hard to be optimistic that the Afghanistan the coalition leaves behind in 2015 will be that much better than the country it invaded 14 years earlier and has been fighting for since. The challenge of Islamic extremism in the West has gone from the threat of foreign terrorists to clashes between home-grown Muslims and violent far-right populists in western Europe, straining to breaking point the continent's multicultural bargain.

Though the neocons are disingenuous when they try to claim credit for the Arab Spring, everyone joins them in hoping the people power revolutions spread throughout the Middle East and grow into peaceable democratic governments. There is ample will for the journey, but the path remains long, bumpy and poorly lit.

Iran and Pakistan are probably bigger threats to global security today than they were in 2001, when in Iran there was reason to hope for peaceful political liberalisation. In Pakistan the West had a president in Pervez Musharraf they could at least communicate with and who seemed in control of his country's military and intelligence services. Try as they might, the US and its six-party partners seem unable to do anything about the profoundly dangerous tragedy of the North Korean ruling dynasty's willingness to sacrifice the wellbeing of its country in the quest for international attention.

 Before 9/11 China, not al-Qa'ida, was the growing threat to US national security. In a remarkable essay in Foreign Affairs early in 2000, Condoleezza Rice, already Bush's principal foreign policy adviser, said: "China resents the role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region . . . That alone makes it a strategic competitor." Today, most American security strategists, including those on Obama's team, would concur. They also would say that the strategic challenge posed by China is more daunting than a decade ago. Taking the focus off the China challenge, not only militarily but also economically, is the main international reason the war on terrorism today looks like a diversion. But taking America's and the West's eyes off what was happening at home was probably even costlier.

The US and European economies are staggering, joining Japan and creating worries about their own version of its lost decade. Fiscal distress is high and growing on both sides of the Atlantic. Trying to find the middle ground in US politics seems politically suicidal, including for Obama, while moving towards a European budgetary union to match the monetary union of the euro seems well beyond the continent's leaders.

The war on terrorism did not cause any of America's economic woes. But it surely didn't help. History says Alan Greenspan lowered US interest rates too much in the wake of 9/11. The second wave of Bush tax cuts were passed in the rally-round-the-flag response to the launch of the Iraq war early in 2003.

The massive costs of America's two wars and protecting the homeland weakened the country's fiscal position. And the big challenges facing the world today long predate the war on terrorism. Nonetheless, absent that war and the world would have had the chance to begin confronting its other demons 10 years ago.

But worse still for those who believe that the world remains a better place with the US as the "indispensable nation", in former secretary of state's Madeleine Albright's words, is that the scale and ambition of American foreign policy will almost inevitably be smaller in the next 10 years than in the past 10.

No matter who rules the West Wing during the next decade, the US will lower its international sights by taking a much harder-nosed view on what the national interest really is.

The US will also try to achieve its goals at a lower cost by asking more of its friends and allies. Think more Asia-Pacific geopolitics, talking up alliances and international institutions, and much less global policeman, let alone global messiah. Writing off the US is premature and foolhardy. The cottage industry of American declinism overlooks the country's extraordinary resiliency during the past century and more. As it has done so many times before, the US will probably come back. After all, the golden age of Reagan-Clinton America followed the dark days of Jimmy Carter.

But look for this bounce back in the medium term of five to 10 years and driven by America's underlying strengths of innovation and immigration, rather than by its ability to vanquish today's economic despondency and political dysfunction in the next couple of years.

The US today is a weaker country than it was when the first United Airlines plane flew into the World Trade Centre on the bright clear morning of September 11, 2001, and not because al-Qa'ida's actions delivered a lasting body blow to US power.

The US didn't have its eyes on the bigger game. Though it was not the only reason, 9/11 played a role in diverting America's attention from challenges that will probably have a more profound impact on the country's future than terrorism. That is the tragic irony of the 9/11 decade.

How and why did the 9/11 decade divert America's attention from other, probably bigger, challenges? And what are the prospects that the US will rise again to meet them?

Why has Obama, the walk-on-water campaigner from 2008, become so ineffective in office? America's last nadir at the end of the 1970s may seem an unlikely place to look, but there are striking parallels that warrant revisiting.

Start with the most obvious. Previously improbable comparisons of the presidencies of Carter and Obama are becoming ever more plausible. But there is a flipside. Pundits proclaiming the demise of the US today are mimicking their predecessors of 40 years earlier.

History proved them spectacularly wrong as the US's remarkable rise from the across-the-board carnage of the late 70s to become by the turn of the millennium not merely the world's sole remaining superpower but its first "hyperpower", according to French intellectuals. And, finally, it was this rise to unprecedented heights that made the events of 9/11 so uniquely shocking to Americans, and the US's overreaction to them so completely understandable.

Obama will take little solace from the fact his bid for re-election next year probably won't be weighed down by the final two indignities of the Carter era. The year-long Iran hostage crisis that ended only the moment Carter vacated the White House sabotaged any chances of his re-election. This was embodied in the primary challenge from his Democratic colleague Ted Kennedy, the worst insult his party could inflict on a sitting president.

Unless something unspeakable, though not wholly unthinkable, happens, Obama can always say he got Osama instead of being held ransom by Islamic extremism. Senior Democrats such as Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton probably still harbour presidential aspirations, though not for next year. But this is cold comfort to Obama, for whom there are no-win situations as far as the eye can see these days, just as with Carter. Carter wasn't almost impeached for Watergate; Richard Nixon was. Carter didn't limp out of the Vietnam war; Gerald Ford did.

OPEC quadrupled oil prices in 1973 in the wake of an Egyptian attack on Israel. Five years later Carter brokered a peace treaty between the two countries. Oil prices redoubled in 1979 in the wake of the overthrow of the shah of Iran whose government Carter had criticised.

None of that helped Carter because his country was gripped tightly in the clutches of a new and seemingly deadly economic malaise, stagflation.

Interest rates and inflation stubbornly stuck in the double digits coupled with an unemployment rate nearly as high were an unmitigated disaster for Carter as well as his country. And everything Carter did to try to stem the rising tide of this "misery index" (inflation plus unemployment) appeared only to make things worse.

There is a cartoon from 1978 that accurately captures Carter's invidious position. Two grumpy businessmen are staring out the window at a blizzard. Caption: "We never had winters like these past two before Jimmy Carter took office." Replace Carter with Obama and you have a pretty good picture of Obama's predicament today.

You would think the historical record would shield Obama from being tarred with the 9/11 and GFC brushes. He was an early vocal critic of the Iraq war and once he had the chance he removed US combat troops ahead of schedule. After siding with his generals for an Iraq-like surge in Afghanistan, Obama overruled them with his aggressive withdrawal timetable.

Obama's speeches on relations between Islam and the West in Ankara and Cairo were feted across the world. Sharing the burden with European allies on the Libyan no-fly zone gave them the respect they had wanted but never received from Bush.

At home, Obama did not choose to leave hedge funds with free rein after the Asian financial crisis. That was Bill Clinton's decision. Nor did Obama end America's decades-long division between retail and investment banking, exposing bigger parts of more financial institutions to the subprime crisis. That was Bush. And it was Bush who then decided to bail out the banks after the fall of Lehman Brothers, not Obama.

It was Obama whose fiscal stimulus less than one month into his term probably avoided an even worse recession in 2009.

And Obama's healthcare reform promises to give 30 million more Americans regular access to health care when these benefits will be more desperately needed than ever.

But none of this is helping Obama today. All that matters is that the US and the world seem closer to a second global financial crisis and a double-dip global recession than at any time since the Lehman debacle. As the famous Oval Office plaque says, "the buck stops here".

The official US unemployment rate remains above 9 per cent.

Take into account people working part time when they want full-time work and those not even bothering to register, and the effective unemployment rate may be closer to 20 per cent.

After losing 30 per cent of their value between 2006 and 2008, US house prices have been flat since. Nervous Americans aren't spending. US corporations are accumulating mountains of cash, but they will continue to sit on it until the American consumer comes back.

Obama has repeatedly tried to jump-start the economy, through his own fiscal stimulus and convincing the Federal Reserve under Ben Bernanke not only to keep near-zero interest rates but also to buy more than a trillion dollars of US Treasury bonds. No surprise that debt and deficits are high and rising fast.

Coupled with just how badly the economy is hurting, this has allowed the Tea Party to inflame and ride populist anti-government sentiment just the way Ronald Reagan did 30 years ago. Now, as then, the mantra is that government is the problem, not the solution.

So the first lesson of the 70s is that "good leadership" tends to have more to do with what is happening in the world than whether the actions of the incumbent in the White House caused them.

The second lesson of the 70s is that they were followed by the 80s and then the 90s. In the first post-Carter decade, Reagan took on the Soviet Union and in the end won. Then Bill Clinton translated that victory into unprecedented prosperity at home coupled with the spread of democracy and markets across the world.

Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" predicted an "unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism". The US delivered it in the 90s, to the delight of a nation of vindicated and comfortable Americans feeling very good about themselves and their country's global role.

WHEN Carter was defeated, the US inflation rate was 13.5 per cent, the official interest rate was 13.4 per cent and unemployment stood at 7.2 per cent. When Bush was elected, the comparable statistics were 2.8 per cent (inflation), 3.9 per cent (interest rates) and 4.7 per cent (unemployment).

The average American's income was more than half as high again in real terms (that is, taking inflation into account) in 2000 as it had been in 1980; the same was true for the world as a whole.

During the same period, the number of democratic countries in the world doubled from 40 to 80 while international trade grew from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of world gross domestic product and the internet made for a truly global village.

It is sometimes hard to remember just how remarkable those two decades were, and to say the US bounced back after the lows of the Carter years would be an understatement. By the time Bush entered the White House, the US was a global power the likes of which the world has rarely if seen, the values it stood for were sweeping the globe, and Americans at home were better off than before.

But it was the rise and rise of the US from the 70s to the new millennium peak that magnified the impact of 9/11 on the collective American psyche. The attacks were on the financial and political centres of the US, not a far-flung military base such as Pearl Harbor. The attackers weren't wearing uniforms and they swore allegiance to no flags. The anguish of "why do they hate us?", the fear of another attack and the anger for retribution were all the greater because Americans thought their country could do no wrong and that the world was so thankful.

What then happened was that, led very much by Bush himself, the US went on a mission to use its power to change the world again: not only to ensure there were no more 9/11s but to bring democracy and markets to the only part of the globe untouched by the liberal wave of the 80s and 90s, the Middle East.

Bush and America thought the rest of the world would join him, and initially they did. But when countries such as France and Germany baulked over Iraq, Bush marched on without them. Americans initially supported him in the long shadow of the terrorist attacks. But across time they grew disenchanted.

Le Monde said on September 12, 2001, "we are all Americans now" and Americans were deeply touched and empowered.

When Bush was re-elected for a second term a little more than three years later, Britain's Daily Mirror asked in angry disbelief the question much of the world was thinking about the Americans who again voted for Bush: "How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?"

The tide then began to turn in the US, too. In 2006 alone, the Supreme Court ruled against practices at the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Bush's Republicans were defeated in congressional elections that were largely a referendum on the Iraq war and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld left the Pentagon. Soon afterwards, Bush himself laid the groundwork for the deal that led to the exit of US combat troops from Iraq.

Bush's early intoxication with American power, and his ability to take his country with him and change the world, reached its zenith when the US toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. This turned out not to be the springboard to more arrogant global ambition many feared at the time. Instead it was the beginning of the end of the policies normally associated with the 9/11 decade.

Nonetheless, for the best part of five years after the invasion, the US was preoccupied with and torn apart by the Iraq war, and everything else that should have been on America's plate was pushed to the back burner. Today economic issues are completely dominating the political agenda, a far cry from just five years ago.

If there is an Obama doctrine it is to undo Bush's war on terrorism and not to get drawn into something like it again. The costs, as Obama has repeatedly said, are just too high. The notion that the US's most important nation-building project is at home has become Obama's go-to phrase.

Now is not the time to debate just how big the "opportunity cost" of the war on terrorism has been for the US and the world. But the grim and grinding realities of a long, drawn-out global downturn are all around us.

If today looks a lot like the 70s, are we now on the verge of the second coming of Reagan, and are America's best days in front of it, as he liked to say with a warm smile and a subtle wink?

Presidential hopeful Rick Perry and the Tea Party believe the answer is yes. For them, the only way to return the US to greatness is to slash spending and cut taxes. Obama probably made a big mistake in letting them frame the debate. But now he has little choice but to accommodate them. He knows the US is facing unsustainable deficits in the long term. But, more important, Obama knows consumers and investors need a political deal, any deal, to bring back confidence to an economy that is bereft of it.

The deficit reduction deal agreed to last month was a bandaid that will be ripped off again in a few months as Washington returns to the partisan gulf over the role of government. In the interim, Obama will try to take back the bully pulpit from the Republicans with a new framing of how to get America back to work.

Whether Obama's words turn quickly into more jobs will probably determine whether he will suffer a Carter-like fate late next year and how much more pain will be inflicted on middle America, and with them people across the world.

But in the longer term, the US's two biggest assets - its thirst for innovation and its magnetic attraction for creative and ambitious people from across the world - mean that the odds on the US bouncing back again are much better than most people seem to think.

The problem is that the US came late to the realisation that "it's the economy, stupid", Clinton's old battle cry, because of its myopic focus on 9/11 for the five years following the terrorist atrocities. This myopia was perfectly understandable, but we hope and expect our leaders to get the big settings right.

Yale historian Paul Kennedy was stunningly wrong in predicting nearly 25 years ago that US power was about to fall off a cliff. But his warning to US policy-makers sounds prophetic today:

There is a need to "manage" affairs so that the relative erosion of the United States position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage.

Solemn remembrances will mark the 10th anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11 this month. But expect the world to get back to the business of trying to revive the global economy with almost unseemly haste.

Geoffrey Garrett