The newspapers and broadcast television today are filled with slightly premature retrospectives on 2009 and, I’ve got to admit, I will not miss it. One set of retrospectives I’d like to commend to your attention is the set of ten reflections on the past decade at the New York Times.
Each year is addressed by a different writer. If you’re salivating after grand insights, you’ll go away hungry but there are a number of small thoughts contained in the little essays that make the whole thing worth reading. You’ll have to click through to the individual essays to read each of them. I thought the best insight was this brief paragraph by William Langewiesche from his essay on 2001:
The government played a role, but primarily by maintaining a perimeter around the site, and resisting the urge to intervene. The restraint was brilliant. The paradox is that elsewhere in response to the attack the same government failed the country so badly — pursuing policies that magnified the effect by distorting American society and leading the country in directions where the Unites States will usually fail. Collectively we are good at kicking down doors. But we are poor at nation-building, at fighting guerrilla wars, at spending tax money within our means, at living in a police state and, more generally, at forcing the world to behave as we think it should. If our government’s reactions accurately reflected American society, we could regard Sept. 11 only with complete dismay.
Those are observations which I think were pretty obvious in 2000 let alone in 2001 or 2009. I’m afraid that I don’t see us turning any of those realizations about our national character, its strengths and limitations, into action. Quite to the contrary I see us as doomed to repeat them.
President Obama has decided to double down on nation building in Afghanistan even while he’s got one foot headed towards the exit. The only thing I can see materializing from that is a nasty sprain. The Congress has also doubled down, in their case on spending beyond our means. If the healthcare reform that will inevitably emerge from the Congress behaves as I expect it will, increasing healthcare costs even faster than before, it will only hasten the collapse of our healthcare system.
If the experience with the Iranians and in Copenhagen demonstrates one thing it is not that the world is longing for American leadership but that, even in the presence of American leadership, there are simply no followers. They perversely won’t do what we want them to do and insist on doing what they think is best for them.