For some time now, students of Strauss and Howe have been arguing about when the current crisis began. When 9/11 occurred a web forum discussing their ideas had already been operating for four years,and it certainly felt as though "this was it." The rhetoric of George W. Bush, who talked about the Global War on Terror as a generational struggle (or, in the words of some Neocons, "World War IV"), contributed to that view as well. Yet Bush's decision to cut taxes instead of raising them and his inability really to get the bulk of the country behind him seemed to indicate that the crisis might lie ahead. Then,in the last year of his Presidency, came the financial crisis, 79 years, remarkably, after 1929. That certainly seemed to be "it," and Neil Howe has stuck to that date ever since.
One advantage of the 2008 date is that it allows for speculation that the crisis might last into the late 2020s, and thus, that we need not take current events too seriously. You may feel, as so many of us do,. that we're headed in the wrong direction right now, but there's still more than a decade to turn around. Yet I am more and more convinced that the Crisis began in 2001, if not, indeed, a year earlier, at the time of the 2000 elections, when the Republicans revealed their determination to disregard all law and precedent in order to get back into power and resume rolling back the work of the previous century. My reason relates to my view of what the crisis is: a series of events that puts a new order, and a new political constellation, in place, and sets the country on a new course. 9/11 did that. The financial crisis most definitely did not.
We find ourselves where we are for many reasons, The first, and biggest, probably, is the surge of individualism and selfishness that began in the mid-1960s as a reaction to a long period of strong authority and conformism. Some of this was necessary, and all of it, apparently, was probably inevitable, but five decades later, the idea of every man and woman for him or herself has clearly deprived us of the cohesion and consensus that it takes to make our society function, if not indeed to hold it together at all. One function of a Crisis or Fourth Turning is to renew civic virtue and cooperation as the nation copes with internal or external threat. That was what Bush II was trying to do after 9/11, and what Barack Obama might have done, but didn't do, when he came into office. Alas, Donald Trump's new budget is only one more confirmation that 9/11 defined the threat that we would face over the next couple of decades once and for all. Unfortunately, it defined it wrongly.
To carry out 9/11, Bin Laden had to infiltrate 16 men into the United States, where some of them secured crucial pilot training. Anyone who bothers to read the relevant sections of the 9/11 Commission's report will have no trouble understanding why nothing remotely similar has occurred since. Even before that signal event, it was extremely difficult for al Queda to get the personnel they wanted into the United States. Since then it has obviously become much harder, and not one terrorist act has been perpetrated or even attempted, as far as I know, by some one who had been recently infiltrated. We could, in short, have coped with the threat of terrorism originating in foreign lands without creating the Department of Homeland Security or the enormous military-intelligence complex that now dominates suburban Washington, D.C. (and which will get a bit bigger, apparently,. under the Trump budget.) But this, of course, was only part of our response.
Fueled by a post-Cold War fantasy of ruling the world, a resentment of Arab states that would not obey the US, and devotion to the interests of the State of Israel, the Bush Administration also seized upon 9/11 as an excuse to begin a string of endless wars in the Middle East. These wars, too, could have brought the country together and created a new consensus--if they could have been successful. Broad strategic problems, however,. doomed them almost from the start. Overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq was well within our capabilities, but establishing stable, friendly regimes in those countries--much less democracies--was far beyond them. Sixteen years and many trillions of dollars later, our side is losing the war in Afghanistan, while the sectarian Iraqi government is destroying the country's second-largest city, Mosul, in order to save it. But that was not all. The fantasy behind those wars: that we could solve terrorism, and other problems as well, by replacing Middle Eastern autocrats with democracies, has continued to be a principle of our foreign policy ever since, with increasingly disastrous consequences.
I have several excellent reasons to believe that the Bush Administration expected to follow the Iraq war with similar strikes against Iran and North Korea. (None of these reasons relates to anything I learned at the time at the Naval War College.) That did not happen, but the Obama Administration resumed this disastrous policy in response to the Arab spring. Like Iraq, Libya went from dictatorship to chaos as a result, triggering a refugee crisis in Europe. In Egypt the United States collaborated, first, in the overthrow of a dictatorship and its replacement by a new democracy,. and then, it would seem, in the overthrow of a newly elected leader by the military, which restored the old regime. In Syria President Obama rightly avoided intervening yet again, but nonetheless made the end of the Assad regime a national objective. Shi'ite and Christian Syrians, as it happens, believe that Assad's fall would mean their massacre, and the evidence of Iraq suggests that they are correct. Meanwhile, using drones, the United States is now identifying and killing "bad guys" from Pakistan to many parts of Africa, even though these targeting killings haven't been any more successful in bringing peace to any areas than they have been for the Israelis who invented the tactic. And we have never had a serious national discussion of this "strategy" and what it is actually doing for us or for the countries where we are applying it. We have appointed ourselves judge, jury and executioner for the whole Islamic world.
And now, the endless Middle Eastern war has been linked to a critical domestic issue, immigration. The immigration problem has very deep roots indeed. One of its main causes, I would suggest, is the decline in our citizenry's birth rate, which, along with mass incarceration, has created a labor shortage that immigrants have come to fill. And we have needed those immigrants: Thomas Piketty argued three years ago that it is only because of immigration that US economic growth has been stronger than that of the EU. Unfortunately, a very real effect of the terror war inside our own society has been to divert enormous attention and sums of money into these useless wars, instead of focusing on very real problems. Those wars have contributed to the occasional terrorist attacks here in the US--always carried out by Muslims who have been living here for some time--which have allowed the Republicans (who have repeatedly blocked immigration reform) and now Donald Trump to arouse fear and hatred around the issue. The war on terror is a divisive issue, not a unifying one.
It has however had another effect. These endless wars, fought by a volunteer army, have, as Andrew Bacevich pointed out, turned our military and veterans into sacred cows before which we all must bow down. And thus, yesterday Budget Director Mulvaney announced a budget that shifts more than $50 billion from various domestic programs to the military and homeland security. As in 2001, the supposed terror threat (which will inevitably be "validated" in theory by another domestic attack at some point) has become an excuse to divert federal resources away from helping the American people. Meanwhile, foreign war looms again as a means by which a Republican administration will try to keep the country behind it,
The hopes that Rex Tillerson, a man who has headed one of the world's largest corporations, might be an effective voice for reason in the new administration are fading fast. He immediately acquiesced in proposals for drastic cuts in the State Department budget--one of the largest cuts, proportionately, to be proposed. Yesterday he made a statement pointing clearly in the direction of war against North Korea, a move that could have incalculable consequences. Steve Bannon, as I pointed out back in November, believes in great wars as an inevitable part of a Fourth Turning. And given that Trump's policies will surely leave the American people worse off, he and the President have few other choices to diver their attention.
I have not, as you can see, been able to stick strictly to my resolution to comment on the new Administration only every other week, but I have not focused on the news of the day. Nor should any of us. It has taken a long time--and a lot of mistakes on all sides of the political spectrum--to get us where we are today. Every major American institution needs a lot of help.