On Thursday, reflecting on the 13th anniversary of September 11, I found myself in rare agreement with David Frum, who noted that 9/11 was just one of the many ways in which the past 15 years have been disappointing.
there is no period in recent US history that has seen such a record of policy failure & disappointment, foreign and domestic, as 2000-2014.
— David Frum (@davidfrum) September 11, 2014
I would put the starting point even earlier, and note that the problem is not just bad luck but poor leadership, which began in the late 1990s and was compounded by events. Here are the 10 most important setbacks:
1998-9: Clinton impeachment Our present-day political rift really began with the impeachment crisis. It is almost customary to blame the Republican Party–and, ultimately, the electorate seemed to be less interested in President Bill Clinton’s lies under oath than the GOP leadership was. Yet Clinton could have saved the country the trouble by resigning. In clinging to power, he let the country be split and destroyed his own political legacy.
1999: Seattle WTO protests The contemporary radical left, which brought us the anti-war movement, the Obama campaign, and eventually Occupy Wall Street, was born in the streets of Seattle, when labor unions, environmentalists and anarchists united to shut down trade talks that could have boosted global prosperity. To their shame, President Clinton and other leaders let the thugs outside shut down the deliberations within.
2000: Florida recount Though George W. Bush deserved to win, given the actual votes cast, the process through which the decisive electoral votes were granted only served to sharpen bitterness at the fact that he won despite losing the popular vote. Opponents called Bush’s win an “electoral coup” and treated him as illegitimate, insisting he had no mandate. Subsequent attempts by Bush to govern in a moderate fashion were ignored.
2001: September 11th Though the nation absorbed the horrible blow of that bright late summer morning, and emerged united for a time, the shock of that moment has never really left us. Airline travel became more complicated; government surveillance became more intrusive; and the world that once seemed welcoming to Americans now seems more hostile, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican happens to be president.
2003: Iraq War Whether it was right or wrong, the Iraq War did not seem necessary to many, and was later undermined somewhat by the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction. Democrats seized the war as a political wedge issue, actively rooting for the failure of U.S. troops–a far more cynical and corrosive form of opposition than anything the nation has seen in the Obama era, and one that hardened mutual political mistrust.
2005: Hurricane Katrina Though the failures were primarily due to (Democrat) state and local officials, the federal relief effort was ultimately blamed. Katrina quickly became a symbol of Bush administration cronyism and incompetence. Worse than that, the disaster was exploited to create racial divisions. Though New Orleans has bounced back–thanks in large part to new Republican officials–the national political rifts have remained.
2007-8: Financial crisis Despite all of the challenges of the Bush era, the economy had, at least, grown at a rapid clip, thanks in part to a strong housing sector. All of that collapsed in the waning months of the Bush presidency, as failed government intrusions in the mortgage market created a credit crisis that was exacerbated by over-leveraging and by complex derivatives that hid the dangers. Economic confidence has never recovered.
2008: Election of Barack Obama The election of the first black president ought to have been something to celebrate. Yet Obama was anointed by the media, which covered up his many flaws. Obama beat Hillary Clinton by running against war policies he would later embrace; defeated John McCain thanks to the financial crisis; and entered office believing he had a mandate for “fundamental transformation,” ensuring conflict to follow.
2009-10 Obamacare No major entitlement program had ever been passed without bipartisan support, but Obama and the Democrats pressed ahead regardless, disregarding constitutional limits and parliamentary procedure to ram through the change they believed would open the floodgates to others. The experience split the nation over a law that is more unpopular today–especially among the uninsured–than it has ever been.
2012-14 Foreign policy collapse From the Benghazi terror attacks, to Syria’s use of chemical weapons; from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea, to the emergence of the “Islamic State” in Iraq, the multiple foreign policy crises that confronted Americans underscored the degree to which events had spun out of control, thanks in part to a deliberate abdication of U.S. leadership by a hopelessly disengaged president.
Things have not been entirely bad, however, and before wallowing in Clintonian nostalgia for the self-satisfied mid-1990s, it is worth noting five positive developments over the past 15 years that offer hope for the future:
1. Mobile technology The advent of mobile phones, the wireless Internet, GPS devices, and smartphones have contributed enormously to the quality of life of human beings throughout the world–especially the poor.
2. Wins against terror The killing of Osama bin Laden was the standout victory, but there were others: the U.S. surge in Iraq that defeated Al Qaeda (until the Obama administration abandoned those hard-won gains); the capture of Saddam Hussein (who did not fight to the death as he had urged others to do, but emerged from a “spider hole”); Columbia’s success against FARC; and Israel’s persistence against the Palestinian terror threat.
3. The Tea Party The excesses of big government inspired a new wave of opposition–and one that could only have emerged in America, a movement that marched in the streets for spending cuts rather than state largesse. The Tea Party reignited interest in the U.S. constitution and restored faith in the American political process, even if it could not achieve all of its goals right away, and failed to make the most of its own political opportunities.
4. Stagnant global temperatures We were supposed to be burning up by now, beset by natural disasters as greenhouse gases caused surface temperatures to rise dramatically, requiring forceful government intervention into the economy. But stagnant temperatures meant no crisis–and less clamor for state control of our lives, as the private sector developed revolutionary new energy technologies such as fracking and hybrid/electric cars.
5. Free markets China has lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of extreme poverty through market-driven economic growth. The same is true in many other communist and former communist countries. While we in the U.S. flirt with outdated socialist ideas, the rest of the world has continued to advance towards greater economic freedom, making the world a happier and more prosperous place than it might otherwise have been.