“The Democrats continue to demonstrate a craven attitude toward any meaningful change that might possibly jeopardize their reelection chances. And the Republican Party is now controlled by a wing so extreme that it would welcome a return to the Dark Ages.”
The world, and especially the United States, became a different place after the September 11, 2001 attacks, but the change was incidental to those events. The horrors perpetrated on New York City, Washington, D.C. and in Pennsylvania only gave apparent legitimacy to the plans of the newly elected, unpopular, President George W. Bush. His approval rating soared after the attacks, as U.S. citizens, like lemmings following each other off a cliff, ‘rallied around the President’ in the nation’s time of trouble.
A look at the time period before 9/11 is instructive. The United States’ imperial ambitions, woven into the fabric of the nation since its birth, were somewhat less evident, as President Bill Clinton managed, somehow, to keep them under the public radar, while still using U.S. military might to further those ambitions. Domestically, meanwhile, during this period millions of jobs were created and, when Mr. Clinton left office, the U.S. had the largest budget surplus in its history.
The election of 2000 was close, and Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote. The contest was decided by Supreme Court decree, and Mr. Bush was appointed president. One might think that an appointed president who lost the popular vote might enter the White House with some semblance of humility, but Mr. Bush clearly had an agenda, and humility played no role in it.
One of Mr. Bush’s first tasks was to assemble a team, comprised largely of oil company executives and lackeys. His vice-president, Dick Cheney, led Haliburton, the world’s largest oil services company. But other major players read like a who’s who of oil company bigwigs:
• Gale Norton, Interior Secretary. Ms. Norton joined the Bush team as an ardent supporter of wide-open oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in the Rocky Mountains. She redecorated her new office in the Interior Department building, removing photos of national parks, and substituting, instead, pictures of an offshore oil derrick, a dam with a US flag on top, and the Rosebud Mine in Montana.
• Spencer Abraham, Energy Secretary. Ironically, when he was in the Senate (he lost his re-election bid), Mr. Abraham sought to abolish the agency Mr. Bush appointed him to lead. As a senator, he fought to limit fuel-efficiency in gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, to cut research into renewable energy and to wipe out the federal gasoline tax.
• Don Evans, Commerce Secretary. Mr. Evans, prior to serving Mr. Bush in three elections, was CEO and Chairman of the Colorado-based oil company, Tom Brown Inc. He also served on the Board of Sharp Drilling, an oil industry contractor.
• Condoleeza Rice, National Security Adviser. Ms. Rice served for ten years on the Board of Chevron Petroleum. That company even named a supertanker, the ‘Condoleezza’ (it was eventually renamed).
Can anyone imagine this cabal not looking at Iraq with covetous eyes? That nation, of course, sits on one of the largest oil reserves on the planet, and all that was needed, as the new millennium dawned, was a reason to get at it.
September 11, 2001, must have been an answer to Mr. Bush’s prayers (just whom he might have been praying to will not be speculated upon here). It took only a short time for him to convince a frightened, paranoid nation that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was hoarding weapons of mass destruction, each one aimed at a suburban U.S. living room. Regime change, the world was told, was all that stood between peace and the ultimate destruction of the United States.
With Colin Powell, famous for leading the U.S. to victory during the Gulf War, and infamous for covering up the My Lai massacre in Vietnam decades earlier, telling the United Nations and the world that he knew Iraq had biological weapons, the U.S. Congress, in its usual spineless and jingoistic manner, gave Mr. Bush carte blanch to invade Iraq.
Within days, over 90,000 U.S. soldiers, and a few from some other countries that were either bribed or browbeaten into joining, amassed on Iraq’s borders. One wonders, at least in hindsight (although there were those who questioned it at the time), why Iraq, with so many threatening and deadly weapons of mass destruction, opted not to use them against these armies, poised to invade. One further wonders why, with United Nations inspectors gaining unprecedented access to any site they wanted within Iraq, Mr. Bush told them to leave the country: he was about to invade.
The history of the invasion; Mr. Bush’s infamous ‘mission accomplished’ speech; his later challenge for the Iraqi freedom fighters – ‘bring them on’ – and the hundreds of thousands of deaths resulting from this ill-advised and obscene invasion, will not be detailed here. That information is common knowledge. Yet this war, and the older one, still raging in Afghanistan, both contribute to the drastic change the U.S. has experienced in the last decade.
One of Mr. Bush’s first acts as president was to issue huge refunds to many citizens, with the richest Americans receiving most of the president’s generous bounty. This writer, who received a Federal refund of approximately $600.00, saw his property taxes increase by that much that same year. This began the evaporation of the huge budget surplus Mr. Clinton had somehow managed to provide for the country. Tax cuts and the launching of two wars quickly changed that surplus to the largest deficit in U.S. history.
And what has changed? As states scramble to make up revenues that are no longer available from the Federal government, they cut budgets wherever they can. This usually includes the following:
• Reduced or eliminated school lunch programs for children from low income families;
• Elimination of teaching positions in public schools;
• And end to after-school programs, thus requiring low-income parents to pay for day care;
• Tighter restrictions for grants for university students;
• Reduced police protection;
• Reduced fire protection.
These are a few of the essential services that have been cut, and are continuing to be cut, as states try to make up budget shortfalls.
So what is different today? School children must attempt to learn, in larger classes, when they are hungry; teaching positions have been eliminated, and those free or subsidized lunches, in many areas, are a thing of the past. This does not bode well as U.S. students continue to lag farther and farther behind China, India and other countries in mathematics and science accomplishment.
And assuming they get through high school, obtaining money for college is now more difficult, further compounding the problem, leaving the U.S. far behind the leaders of the pack in science and industry.
Police and fire protection is not what it once was. Recently, it was reported that a California man committed suicide by going into deep water. Rescue officials were called to the scene and watched him drown; they did not have the training or equipment to attempt a rescue. After he died, a young woman passing by offered to bring the body in; rescue officials were not able to do it. Training budgets have been cut, so additional monies can be refunded to the wealthiest Americans, and so that Mr. Bush’s wars, which President Obama inherited and for some inexplicable reason has decided to maintain, can continue.
The wealthy do not need to concern themselves with the quality of the public school system; they can send their children to the elite private schools of their choice. The doors of any university in the world are open to them, as they write the checks necessary to pay the tuition. Private security firms keep them safe in any circumstances.
Although the gap between rich and poor in the United States has always been extreme, it has grown to dangerous proportions in the first decade of the current millennium. And as American university graduates increasingly lack the skills needed to compete in today’s global economy, this gap will increase, with fewer and fewer Americans controlling larger amounts of the nation’s wealth.
History indicates that societies will only tolerate this level of disparity for so long; something, generally, brings it to the breaking point (see: Egypt, 2011). What that will be for the U.S. remains to be seen. The economy continues to flounder, and Mr. Obama does not seem to have been able to do much to stabilize it. The Democrats continue to demonstrate a craven attitude toward any meaningful change that might possibly jeopardize their reelection chances. And the Republican Party is now controlled by a wing so extreme that it would welcome a return to the Dark Ages.
It has been said that change is good, but that has not been true for the United States for some time. The country needs strong, courageous leadership, men and women who will tell the unpleasant truth, and take the action required. Sadly, there does not seem to be anyone on the horizon willing to step up to this task.
Robert Fantina is author of Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776 - 2006.