A decade of turmoil

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 7, 2011

Liberty_Bell,_Independence_main
TED WIDMER
OUR FORGOTTEN HISTORY

Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown, has had a remarkable career: rock 'n' roll musician, historian, speech writer for President Clinton. He has a unique feel for the grand sweep of events.

He told me, before our chat, that he was working on a talk on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

WHAT IS YOUR TALK ABOUT? I've been reading the 9/11 report, which is a pretty remarkable document. Air Force One was in Florida with President Bush and it took off within minutes of getting the news. And there was a line that it had "no destination." I thought that's a pretty gripping line — and it says a lot about how we felt that day.

I think we did not make the best choices available to us over the years that followed. And specifically, I think the Iraq War was the single worst decision of the last 10 years. [But] I don't want my talk to turn into a simple-minded attack on President George W. Bush.

I want to talk about how all Americans — from liberal as well as conservative points of view — should be proud of the deep work that was put into building a working international order over a long history: the US first establishing that democracy can work, when we were close to the only democratic system on earth, and then almost single-handedly building up the international system after World War II

A lot of that work was damaged, I think, in our confused and extremely angry military response to 9/11.

WE'VE UNDOUBTEDLY MADE MAJOR MISTAKES SINCE 9/11. BUT I ALSO WONDER IF, IN THE MORE BINARY COLD WAR ERA, WE COULD MORE EASILY PROJECT OURSELVES AS THAT GLEAMING DEMOCRACY. Our actions were far from perfect in the Cold War, but they were just about always better than the Soviet Union, so we were in a good position to argue that our system was better.

And it's true that we are, in a way, the victim of our own success. Even when Clinton was president, there were a lot of people attacking American power. There's a famous quote from a French foreign minister that we'd become a "hyperpower," beyond a superpower. We'd become too powerful, even under the pretty benign leadership of Bill Clinton.

And then there was a strange tension in the last 10 years where it almost seemed like other countries believed more in the democratic tradition than we did. And I felt like, somehow, the world was getting its history a little mixed up and wasn't giving the US enough credit for having invented that tradition.

IT'S ONLY BEEN 10 YEARS SINCE 9/11 AND THERE'S MUCH HISTORY STILL TO BE WRITTEN, BUT I'M CURIOUS IF YOU'VE SEEN ANY SHIFT IN OUR NARRATIVE AROUND THE ATTACKS. Well, there was a kind of shallow narrative that was told over and over again by partisans of President Bush, which is that we had invented freedom and that we were devoted to the destruction of evil. And words like "victory" were used a lot, which implies a complete vindication of our way and a complete crushing of dissent — mostly meaning abroad, but sometimes it felt a little uncomfortably directed at dissenters at home. And I don't think that was the best narrative. I think it was too chest-thumping.

At the same time, I was also disturbed by liberal tendencies not to take credit for America's profound contributions to the world order and the spread of what you can call American values around the world. What we want is a robust liberal interventionism of a kind we might associate with Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, where there's just a kind of optimism and a belief in the capacity of people to make their lives better.

It's almost more intuited around the world, than a blunt message where we are saying, "Do this" and people are saying, "Yes, sir." It would be nice to see more of that. I think the Obama Administration was elected on a wave of that kind of feeling, but has been shackled a little bit by economic conditions that are unfavorable to optimism, and also a really vitriolic political environment — and some diffidence in spreading that message that seems to come from the top.

THE FIRST PRESIDENT BUSH WON HIS WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST BUT WAS FELLED BY A POOR ECONOMY. PRESIDENT OBAMA GOT OSAMA BIN LADEN, BUT HE'S FACING DOWN ECONOMIC STAGNATION AND DEFICITS. WHY WILL HE FARE BETTER IN HIS SEARCH FOR A SECOND TERM? I think there are reasons to be worried. The failure of the economy to get better is worrisome. [But] I think Barack Obama is a much more skilled politician than [George H.W. Bush] was. And I'm encouraged by the wackiness of the candidates on the right.

George Bush lost not only because of the economy and because of his poor campaigning skills, but because he had Ross Perot draining votes on the right and an unbelievably talented campaigner in Bill Clinton that he was facing. And so far, Barack Obama doesn't have any of those problems.

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