03 Jun 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
The US finds its leadership in the world confronted by a sea of troubles, writes Tony Leon
A GREAT deal happens in just 24 hours in New York. Last Wednesday in the Big Apple, I participated in two such happenings and watched a third, each of them connected to the others and the wider world, illustrating both the height and the shrunken limits of what US President Barack Obama calls "American exceptionalism".
The morning began with a visit to the recently inaugurated National September 11 Museum, situated at "Ground Zero", where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.
That was until that fateful morning 13 years ago, when 3,000 people, from more than 60 countries, were immolated or leapt to their deaths when terrorist hijackers flew two planes into the edifices of the US headquarters of global capitalism and trade. As Thomas Friedman noted, thus began a war started by a "super-empowered angry man (Osama bin Laden)", who struck the homeland with deadly force, which led even the most hardened New Yorkers to regard the site of the attack as hallowed ground.
The museum itself is a monument to decorum. It contains more than 10,000 items collected from the carnage of that day. There is a roll call of the dead engraved around the two reflecting memorial pools on the precise site where the twin towers once proudly stood. The attack, of course, revealed just how vulnerable even the strongest nation is when confronted with an extremist ideology with no limits in its tactics or strategy.
Precisely how the US protects itself and its allies from the risk of future attacks and the metastasising of the global networks of terror that now afflict our own continent, from Nigeria to the Sahel, was the subject of another event that day in upstate New York.
Obama arrived at the military academy in West Point to deliver a "commencement address" (US-speak for graduation ceremony) for the cadets.
In reality, it was yet another attempt by the much-criticised commander-in-chief to reset and restate his foreign and military policy, which both left and right in this hyper-divided nation have pummelled for its indecisiveness and caution.
I thought he struck a note of realism when he told the graduating cadets — and, of course, the US’s many friends and enemies beyond West Point: "US military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."
He then offered a blend of multilateral engagement, military action where vital interests are at stake, and a form of outsourcing the war on terror to countries at the coalface of it through a proposed $5bn fund for local training and resources. Perhaps the cash-strapped and resource-poor African Union will find this tempting, but some, in view of their anti-western bias, will be unwilling to take this proffered largesse.
The speech was, in fact, a thinly veiled repudiation of the legacy of former president George Bush, whose response to 9/11’s ineradicable stain on the US’s hitherto invincible psyche was to launch two invasions. As the thoughtful conservative columnist Christopher Caldwell noted: "Changing US foreign policy after George Bush is the main thing he was elected to do. He has done it."
But, at the same time, the US finds its leadership in the world confronted by, literally and metaphorically, a sea of troubles from Chinese aggression in the South China Sea to Russian revanchism in Ukraine, Iran going nuclear, and failed and warring states elsewhere in the Middle East. And uber-cautious Obama would rather err on the side of indecision than blunder into the wars without end launched by his predecessor.
He also operates with a shrunken budget and the smallest number of soldiers since before the Second World War, and a loss of appetite from his citizenry for further foreign engagements. The Pew Center polling group last year published a survey showing that, for the first time since 1964, a majority of Americans felt their country should "mind its own business internationally".
In fact, 1964 was the subject of a mesmerising play I saw the same evening — All the Way, starring the outstanding Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad TV fame (if you haven’t watched the series yet, you should).
In this production, he portrays in riveting detail president Lyndon B Johnson and shows, in the 50th anniversary year, how Johnson used an armoury of his extraordinary powers of personal persuasion and legislative mastery to push through the Civil Rights Act in the teeth of the fiercest resistance from his native South.
Of course, the play also alludes to the beginning of the US’s deepening involvement and commitments in Vietnam. And so the master of domestic politics was to witness his presidency implode in the paddy fields of Southeast Asia. Perhaps another reason for Obama’s caution in the world.
• Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela (Jonathan Ball) Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA