Collective self-reflection in the wake of a national tragedy

The American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post-colonial world.

Boston Deals With Aftermath Of Marathon Explosions
"Self-scrutiny and mid-course correction of America’s global role is long overdue," writes Falk [Getty Images]

The dominant reactions to the horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon on April 15 – which also happened to be the Patriots Day – have been so far: compassion for the victims, a maximal resolve to track down the perpetrators, and a pundit’s notebook that reports to Americans that they have been protected against terrorist violence since 9/11 and that the best way to prevail against such enemies is to restore normalcy, avoid dwelling on the gory details, not memorialise the scene of the mayhem with reminders, and move forward with calm resolve and freedoms undiminished. 

Such responses are far preferable to the war fever nurtured by leaders, the media and a vengeful public after the 9/11 attacks. 

Of course, the scale and drama of the attack, while great, was not nearly as large or as symbolically resonant as the destruction of the World Trade Center and damage to the Pentagon. Also, although each life is sacred, the magnitude of tragedy is somewhat conveyed by numbers, and the Marathon incident has so far produced three deaths as compared to 3,000, or a 1/1,000th. 

Also important, the neocon presidency of George W Bush, was in 2001 prior to the attacks seeking a pretext to launch a regime-changing war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the 9/11 events, as interpreted and spun, provided a supportive domestic climate for launching an aggressive war against the Baghdad regime that was undertaken despite the UN Security Council failure to lend its authority to such an American deadly geopolitical venture. 

American grand strategy

In 2001, the preferred American grand strategy, as blueprinted by the ideologues of the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution, was given a green light by the Bush/Cheney White House even in the face of the UN red light. 

Although there are many distressing continuities that emerge if the Obama presidency is compared in relation to the counter-terrorist agenda of his predecessors, but there are also some key differences of situation and approach. Obama came to Washington after the failed wars of Afghanistan and Iraq that had devastated two countries, seemingly beyond foreseeable recovery, added nothing to American security, and wasted trillions expended over the several years during which most Americans still felt the hardships and pain of the deepest economic recession since the 1930s. 

In other words, temporarily at least, the Beltway think-tanks and the government are doing their best to manage global crises without embarking on further wars. The brief period of easy and victorious wars (quickly concluded, and with minimal casualties), as was the Gulf War of 1991 and the NATO Kosovo War of 1999, is over. Irresponsible and unlawful warfare seems no longer to be the centrepiece of America’s foreign policy as it was in the first decade of the 21st century. 

What unfortunately remains taboo at this moment of 24/7 commentary on American security policy is any type of self-scrutiny by either the political leadership or the mainstream media, but at least there are a few hopeful signs of awakening on the part of the citizenry. 

 Boston Marathon bomb suspect ‘identified’

Listening to a PBS programme hours after the Boston event, I was struck by the critical attitudes of several callers: it is horrible, but we in this country should not be too surprised, given our drone attacks that have unwittingly targeted weddings and funerals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Another caller asked if it is not retribution for the kind of torture inflicted by American security forces acting under the authority of the government, verified by pictures of the humiliation of Islamic prisoners at Abu Ghraib or in light of the authoritative reports of officially sanctioned torture as detailed in the 577 page report of a task force chaired by two former senators – one a Republican, the other a Democrat – and containing senior military and security officials. 

Is it not time that one among our politicians had the courage to connect these dots? Can we not ponder WH Auden’s haunting line: “Those to whom evil is done/do evil in return”? 

The American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post-colonial world. In some respects, the US has been fortunate not to experience worse blowbacks, and such could yet happen, especially if there is no disposition to rethink US relations to others in the world, starting with the Middle East. 

America’s military prowess

Some of us hoped that Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 was a beginning of such a process of renewal, timid in many ways, yet with a tonality that seemed to acknowledge that relations with the Islamic world needed a fundamental shift in the direction of reconciliation, including a move toward a more balanced approach to the Palestine/Israel situation. But as the months passed, what became evident, especially given the strong pushback by Israel and its belligerent leader, Bibi Netanyahu, was the accelerating back peddling of the Obama presidency. 

Now at the start of his second presidential term, it seems that Obama has recognised the constraints, and seeks to confine his legacy to such domestic concerns as immigration, gun control and health care, abandoning the international agenda except to handle crisis diplomacy in a manner that does not disturb the global status quo or shorten America’s global reach. Obama’s trip to Israel, punctuated by his speech in Jerusalem on March 21, was more in the spirit of a love letter to the Israeli public than a genuine effort to bring a just peace, and contrasted with the much more visionary outlook exhibited in his early first term visit to the Middle East. 

Self-scrutiny and mid-course correction of America’s global role is long overdue. Such a process is crucial both for the sake of its own future security and for the wellbeing of others. Such adjustments will eventually come about either as a result of a voluntary process of self-reflection or through the force of events. How and when this process of reassessment occurs remains a mystery. 

Until it does, America’s military prowess and the abiding confidence of its leaders in hard power diplomacy makes the US a menace to the world and to itself. This is as true if Mitt Romney rather than Barack Obama was in the White House. The continuity reflects bipartisan support of a globe-girdling geopolitics, which has so far refused to acknowledge the evidence of national decline that is accentuated by pursuing an unsustainably ambitious global security role.      

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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