Making America Grate Again

By | 2/09/2017 Leave a Comment
Donald Trump pointing his finger

It may seem almost illusory now, but back in 2001, after the horrendous events of 9/11, much of the world reached out to the U.S. in an unprecedented show of warmth and sympathy. Governments and leaders from across the globe – some of them longtime adversaries such as Iran, Libya, North Korea, China and Russia – offered up words of support and solidarity that would have seemed unthinkable just days before, and in some cases made concrete offers of material help, such as the Cuban government’s offer of use of its medical facilities, airspace and airports.

The sheer scale of the attack along with the number of countries (78) who lost citizens in the carnage of the World Trade Center’s destruction gave the event a sense of being an attack on the world community as a whole. Indeed, the day after the tragedy, the French daily newspaper Le Monde ran the headline: “We are all Americans.”

Of course, that sentiment could never last – not in all quarters at least – but nevertheless it seemed to offer up the hope of a more unified, less combative world order. The sight of the most powerful nation on earth having to endure such an unspeakable act of death and destruction showed the world that despite all the bravado and implied superiority, America was, as they say, human after all.

Then came the wars.

Initially, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was seen by and large as a legitimate response to the cataclysmic events that took place on that infamous day in September. The aim of destroying al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization behind the attacks, and the removal from power of the Taliban, who’d been harboring them, seemed perfectly justified. It wasn’t long, however, before those early goals were significantly expanded and the perception of colonialism and nation-building began to creep in.

But it wasn’t until the U.S. invasion of Iraq two years later that the international well of goodwill truly began to run dry. The rush to war against a country that had no links to the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and that posed no direct threat to the U.S. appeared at best to be wanton act of aggression aimed at correcting a perceived past mistake (the decision not to remove Saddam Hussein from power after the 1991 Gulf War), and at worst – and more realistically – a blatant attempt at nation-building in a strategic area of the Middle East by the Bush administration’s powerful and highly influential neoconservatives.

In switching its foreign policy objectives from counter-terrorism to unilateralist regime change and nation-building, the U.S. brought upon itself a renewed level of hatred and distrust, not only in the Arab world but in many corners of its traditional allies, replacing what had only a couple of years earlier been a near-global sense of compassion.

However, after the disastrous Bush years, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 saw the U.S. attempt to rebrand itself in the eyes of the international community as a nation that was willing to listen to and cooperate with other countries, rather than bully or dictate to them. The arrogance of the previous administration’s “Either you're with us or you’re against us” swagger was to be replaced with something closer to “We’re all in this together.”

And indeed, in the ensuing years the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were drawn down, didacticism was replaced by diplomacy, and gradually the country began to regain its footing as a credible partner in the world. Obama wisely avoided getting the U.S. embroiled militarily in Syria’s civil war – despite his notoriously clumsy “red line” warning to President Bashar al-Assad – and when the situation in Libya required action, he shrewdly jockeyed for the British and French air forces to lead the brunt of the military action, thus avoiding the optics of the U.S. having lapsed back into its perceived ‘War on Islam.’

But while Obama was criticized for being far too soft on foreign policy for years by those on the right of the aisle – and not without justification at times – he nevertheless managed to reign in America’s reputation as a nation of trigger-happy adventurists and helped project an image of it being a pragmatic force for betterment whose foreign interventions were limited only to those it considered just and morally upright. Or in the president’s words: “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Then came Trump.

In a staggeringly short span of time – before the Obamas’ U-Haul had even disappeared from view from the windows of the West Wing – the newly elected billionaire businessman has managed to turn all of that damage control on its head.

If the Islamic world – and that’s roughly a quarter of the world’s population – still harbored any suspicions about a supposed U.S. policy of ‘War on Islam’ they were surely confirmed when Trump signed his executive order temporarily banning travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Any justifications from the administration that the ban is not anti-Muslim, but rather solely to protect American citizens from Islamic terrorists, ring deafeningly hollow. Of the 94 people that have been killed in the U.S. by jihadist attacks in the past 15 years, all were perpetrated by either American citizens or legal residents and none of them originated from the seven countries on the president’s list. Not only that, the perpetrators of 9/11 – the worst terrorist attack in world history and the deadliest foreign attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor – came from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon, none of which were included on the administrations list of “countries of concern.”

But this executive order not only provoked outrage and drew furious condemnation from the Muslim world, but also from many of America’s staunchest allies. Huge protests erupted in cities across the globe, including London, Paris, and Berlin, as heads of state unanimously decried what they saw as a discriminatory ban on individuals based on their nationality and religion.

Then a few days later came the “Australia incident.” During a phone conversation with the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, Trump allegedly became angered when Turnbull refused to back away from a previous agreement between the two countries – made during the Obama administration – whereupon the U.S. would accept 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention center. Trump's solution? He hung up on him. The leader of one of America’s most faithful allies, yelled at, demeaned and dismissed like an insubordinate contestant on one of his game shows.

And it’s just the beginning.

The upshot:

Astonishingly, in less than two weeks, Trump and his right-wing ideologue advisors – notably chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior advisor Stephen Miller – have managed to transform America’s global image from what many saw as a beacon of progress into something fast becoming a global pariah.

It would be a little more reassuring to imagine this initial chest-thumping braggadocio as something akin to an inept and petulant child trying to assert itself at its new school. Unfortunately, however, everything points to the sad realization that the school now has a new bully.

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