I Hear America Sinking

Behind the memorial candles and commercial remembrances lies one of the most astute marketing campaigns in American political history. This week, as the nation marks the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration will twist voters' outpouring of raw emotion and patriotic fervor into a launching pad for the inevitable invasion of Iraq.

In a Sept. 12 speech to the United Nations, President George W. Bush will further showcase his arguments for knocking off Saddam Hussein. Behind the scenes, his advisers have been torquing the arms of European leaders, who rightly have withheld approval. The White House is making a very bold gamble, one that has most of the world scared to death.

Last week, the U.S. stepped up its air attacks, sending 100 warplanes to bomb Iraq, which has been under intermittent siege since the end of Desert Storm in 1991. The Pentagon has continued to move ships, planes and troops into the region. As for any congressional debate, it's as much for display as the deliberations of the UN, orchestrated to end in a non-binding resolution backing Bush.

Bush can hope war will benefit the economy. But it could also hurt. News early this week that Saudi Arabia would deny U.S. companies access to its prized natural-gas fields is only the first sign of what could well turn into an economic energy boycott against the U.S., driving up prices and torpedoing our markets.

Time was when America appeared strong enough to command more respect. After World War II, the guiding myths of America had more resonance, the empire more pure clout. Now, suddenly, the whole thing seems to be coming apart, with the facts of our weakness outweighing any attempts at spin. No frenzy of patriotism can hide the cracks in the pillars of our society, at least not for long. Consider some of them:

Military. Sept. 11 represents a huge military and intelligence failure, symbolized by news that air-traffic controllers knew a second plane had been hijacked and was potentially heading for the World Trade Center well before it crashed into the south tower. But our air defenses were nowhere. The BBC just last week aired an interview with the Northeast Defense Sector air commander saying that there were only four armed fighters patrolling the Atlantic coast of the U.S. that day.

To bolster these fighters, the Air Force diverted other unarmed planes from training missions. Two of them tried to respond but just couldn't get there in time. This from a Pentagon that has been insisting since the start of the Cold War it could respond to a Soviet attack within minutes. This from a military that won World War II. This from a military whose budget this fiscal year will be around $396 billion, a military that claims it can fight at least a two-front war.

Our retaliatory assault in Afghanistan was no more successful. In attacking the Taliban, our target was Osama bin Laden and Supreme Leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. Bush said he wanted the al-Qaida boss “dead or alive.” Neither man has been captured, although the military continues to push speculation that bin Laden died in its bombing of Tora Bora. And as Debka.com, the site with the inside scoop on Israeli intelligence, reported, the Taliban not only managed an orderly retreat but also re-infiltrated Afghanistan to continue a guerrilla war. Last week, they nearly killed the American-sponsored president, Hamid Karzai.

As for the intelligence failures leading up to Sept. 11, Congress has refused to initiate any serious investigation into the workings of the spy agencies, sparking speculation that lawmakers are afraid of implicating themselves in an election year. The Independentreported over the weekend that shortly before Sept. 11, U.S. officials and the UN ignored a message from the Taliban foreign minister that bin Laden was planning a big attack inside the U.S. The friendly Taliban emissary was ignored by the U.S. because his alert seemed like just another of the crazy warnings that were exhausting the spies.

Foreign Alliances. Despite Tony Blair's rather odd weekend backing for Bush (“The only decision that's been taken at this stage is that inaction is not an option”), the U.S. remains at odds with much of the world. Last week, German chancellor Gerhard Schrder bluntly summed up his position on any war with Iraq. “The . . . arguments that I have cited against an intervention are so important that I would also be against such an intervention if—for whatever reasons and in whatever form—the Security Council of the United Nations were to say, 'Yes,' which I cannot imagine happening in the present situation,” he told The New York Times. China is also opposed to our intervention, as is France, Russia, Japan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan. Energy. The U.S. imports well more than half its oil, with most of it coming from the Middle East. Iraq in particular sells half its oil exports to the U.S. Iraq provides about 10 percent of all American imports. As our intake of foreign fuel has grown, so has the demand for it, epitomized by gas-guzzling SUVs. To get more oil, we are trying to turn from the Middle East to the Russians and their pipelines into the Caspian basin. Even so, we are totally socked into the Middle East for the near future. Personal Freedom. Civil liberties have been steadily reduced under the rubric of the war on terror. About 1,200 people were taken into custody after Sept. 11, some 752 of them on immigration charges. Many of these people never had a hearing and never had a charge lodged against them. Some were subjected to secret trials. Eighty-five percent were deported. Some two dozen men are still being held indefinitely as material witnesses—and in complete secrecy. If a prisoner were lucky enough to speak to an attorney, the government could routinely wiretap those conversations. For any reason at all, the government can now designate people as “enemy combatants” and hold them in solitary without the right to counsel.

Meanwhile the government has gained new powers. The FBI can demand your library records and school transcripts. Agents can meander through e-mail accounts at will. As always, the feds infiltrate public meetings; the mere taking of a pamphlet has led to arrest and months in prison.

Economy. Even without threats from overseas, the economy remains dead in the water, with no new jobs, only a slight increase in wages, and unemployment near 6 percent. At the onset of the Bush presidency, we were looking at a budget surplus of $405 billion. Halfway through his term, the surplus had become a $157 billion deficit. Foreign investors are pulling back. The S&P 500 has fallen 37 percent from its peak in early 2000. As mutual funds tank, 401(k) pensions have disappeared. Leadership. Foreigners don't know what to make of America. To an outsider, Bush looks like a puppet run by VP Dick Cheney, who last weekend single-handedly created a new foreign-policy concept, the doctrine of the “preemptive strike,” to rationalize an attack on Saddam Hussein. But what happens if China were to take up the preemptive-strike doctrine and attack us?

And then there are always Bush's cuckoo utterances. “The world must understand . . . that its credibility is at stake,” he said after a recent Cabinet Room meeting with 18 Democratic and Republican congressional leaders. Notwithstanding their guitar-playing cocker spaniel chief, Brits polled lately held Bush as the third greatest threat to peace, trailing only Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Research by Gabrielle Jackson and Cassandra Lewis.

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