Sunday, September 14, 2008

Our Power

Americans have long felt aggrieved by the 9/11. Here we are the most powerful nation of the world, completely innocent, sneakily attacked by a bunch of terrorists, mostly from Saudi Arabia, a firm ally of ours in the Mideast. We found ourselves in a "war on terrorism."

Seven years later, it is time to think again about what happened there. Is it really true that we are "the most powerful nation on earth"?

Many people think that our power rests on two pillars: our military and our economy. Our military consumes more than half of the annual expenditures of the US government. That enormous sum pays for the costs of past wars and the maintenance of the current military establishment, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been fighting those two wars for more than five years -- longer than either World War I or World War II. So far it is not clear that we have won. Our military has been victorious only in attacks on tiny, tiny countries when Pres. Reagan attacked the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, and the elder Bush attacked the small nation of Panama. We have lost most serious wars since the middle of the last century. We lost to the North Vietnamese during the war in Vietnam and were fought to a draw by the Chinese during the war in Korea. Yes, it is true that we have enough nuclear weapons to annihilate all human life on earth. Yes it is also true that our military is more high tech than anyone else's but once again we seem to be unable to win out over the homemade explosives of shadowy opponents in Iraq or the Taliban of Afghanistan -- neither of them as well equipped as we are.

9/11 is just one more example of that. When the planes left Logan Airport and disappeared from the radar we could not even get our fighter planes up in the air. We were defenseless in spite of all the incredible expenditure for the military.

As to our economic power, the United States owes the $31,000 for every man, woman and child living in our country. We are heavily indebted; our debt is growing with every year at the same time as we have no money to keep up our roads and bridges, to give a decent education to all children, or to provide a minimally acceptable life for everyone. At the moment we can't even provide jobs for everyone or guarantee a roof over their head.

So much for two pillars of our power: our military is not equipped to fight our actual enemies. Our economy is in shambles. But there is a whole other aspect of national power which we have not even mentioned yet.

During the Vietnam war, the North Vietnamese moved troops and weapons and supplies through the jungles on bicycles. Due to a massive national effort they managed to defeat a richer and much better equipped, a "more powerful" enemy. The power of the nation does not only depend on its money and its weapons. The power of a nation, in the end, depends on the dedication of its citizens to national goals and to maintaining national institutions.

During World War II, the whole nation pitched in. "There was a war on" and everything was different; many people gladly made great sacrifices. But lately we have been unable to mobilize our national energies. After 9/11, President Bush did not call for a national mobilization. He told people to go shopping. No national coming together was called for or ever thought about. Bumper stickers saying "United we stand" was all we could do as a response to the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Only half of all Americans vote in presidential elections. 9/11 and the wars we are fighting abroad have not changed that. The military can barely fill its ranks and its recruits are overwhelmingly drawn from the poor for whom we do not manage to provide the prospects of decent work for decent pay. Ours is not an army of the people; it is an army of those who have few other alternatives or, more and more, an army of foreigners who join in order to get a green card or citizenship.

In the last 50 years, American political life has undergone profound changes. Our political parties used to be large organizations closely connected to ordinary voters. Every precinct and ward had their party organizations, further subdivided into individual block committees. The parties employed a large network of volunteers whose job it was to know the people on their block, to listen to their grievances and to get them to vote for their candidate at election time.

The same was true of other organizations that had political agendas -- ethnic organizations, opponents of alcohol, PTA's and such. American democracy involved a significant number of citizens. Today the only role for citizens in politics is to send money. They neither work in the organization nor have any say when it comes to making policy.

Politics has become thoroughly professionalized. It is the business of full-time, paid operatives; citizens do not participate. If they do, if they take a grievances to a city counselor or to City Hall, they may get a hearing -- if they're lucky -- but the odds are that no one will take their recommendations seriously. They may be listened to but will not be heard. Professional politicians and bureaucrats are in charge -- citizens no longer have any power. They vote and after that they are supposed to disappear quietly.

As a result citizens have become passive. They do not trust the government to pay attention to them. Even if they face serious problems, they complain to their friends but not to the government, for what's the use?

One example of that: as the new school year begins, many school districts are unable to provide the most basic supplies such as pencils or toilet paper. The schools must appeal to parents to provide these essential items. But we hear no loud complaints about that.

Another example: more than two thirds of the electorate want the war in Iraq to end. There is no sign that anyone in the government is paying serious attention to that.

We have become weak in spite of our arsenal of atomic bombs because we lack unity as a nation. We have fragmented into different groups. There is the government and its bureaucrats. They say they represent us, but do not really. Instead they do as they please. Then there are the working Americans who barely get by these days. The government is willing to save the banks but not the houses or jobs of ordinary Americans. They work but the government looks away from them. Then there are other Americans who do not manage to get by even though many of them work more than one job. Others again will take any job if only they could get one. Their best chance is to fight America's wars.

9/11 was not an attack on us although ordinary citizens lost their lives. The airplanes attacked the US government which was even then hatching plans for Mideast wars. They had been thinking about that for years but had not talked about them. Our government does not tell us Americans what it is planning; once it has decided to go to war it tries to sell that project to us by telling lies. It stages elaborate electoral campaigns to make us think that it represents us.

9/11 and its aftermath exposes the weakness of America: all our smart bombs are no remedy for the weakness of the nation whose government has separated itself from the people.