Is This The End of the American Century?

This site features updates, analysis, discussion and comments related to the theme of my book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008 (hardbound) and 2009 (paperbound).

The Book

The End of the American Century documents the interrelated dimensions of American social, economic, political and international decline, marking the end of a period of economic affluence and world dominance that began with World War II. The war on terror and the Iraq War exacerbated American domestic weakness and malaise, and its image and stature in the world community. Dynamic economic and political powers like China and the European Union are steadily challenging and eroding US global influence. This global shift will require substantial adjustments for U.S. citizens and leaders alike.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The End of America's Disgrace

I only admitted this to my friends, but I was embarrassed about my country, and embarrassed to be an American during most of the past four years. For me, the President of the United States was particularly embarrassing and humiliating, but his cabinet and advisors were not much better. Even Congress acquiesced in Bush’s humiliation of America, and his undermining of the Constitution, and of our most fundamental values. The President authorized and advocated torture. Without apparent remorse, he violated international law and universal moral standards. He sent thousands of young Americans to their death in a useless, illegal and immoral war. He barely mentioned the tens (or hundreds?) of thousands of innocent Iraqis who lost their lives as a result of his personal crusade. The President approved the violation of habeas corpus, one of the most ancient and fundamental principles of law and human rights. He stifled freedom of speech and the press, and ridiculed his opponents, both at home and abroad. And even in seemingly trivial matters, he was an embarrassment; denying President-elect Obama and his family the use of Blair House during the transition was a final, departing, glaring example of his lack of even elementary decency and civility.

My own embarrassment even extended to my countrymen. We elected this jovial demagogue not once, but twice and even after all of this should have been clear to all. Eventually, I realized that I could not distance myself from my country—I am too much part of it. I also realized that Americans were only partly at fault for Bush. He exploited and played on our fears, and encouraged our baser instincts. This is the age-old strategy of demagogues and dictators everywhere, and it worked here too.

For me, all of this changed on January 20. Once again, I am proud to be an American, and—perhaps for the first time in my life—proud of the person we have elected as President. The November election itself was a revelation and an inspiration, but somehow it did not fully hit home until the inauguration. The two million people on the mall, many of them (like my daughter and her husband) arriving in the frigid pre-dawn hours. The poem, the music, the speech, and the benediction—all weaving together the same themes of unity, community, charity, justice, equality, freedom and faith. And especially Obama himself—a smart, hard-working, family man; an African-American; and a person who wants to help other people, especially the less fortunate.

What is perhaps most remarkable about this presidential transition is the absolutely huge difference from one man to the other. In past elections, I have been pleased with the election of some leaders (mostly Democrats, I have to admit), but I always felt that the change was incremental and marginal at best. The new guy was better than the old, but the difference was not earth shaking. This time, we have left behind the worst president in modern American history—a playboy millionaire who could barely compose a sentence—for a young man who braved amazing obstacles to rise to the top by hard work and intelligence, who has written books (on his own!), and who has dedicated much time to helping others.

Furthermore, his election has restored my faith in America, and in my fellow citizens. I actually did not believe that the U.S. could elect an African-American as President at this point in its history. But we did! Even Indiana voted for Obama (maybe because he can shoot 3-pointers!). The rest of the world, which understandably viewed Bush as a lightweight and a cowboy, is already reassessing the United States and its people. (As I document in my book, foreign publics increasingly blamed the disfunctionalism of the U.S. on its people, rather than on Bush alone). This is the first time in world history that a majority White country has elected a Black chief executive. The world has taken notice.

Obama’s election does not mean that we will soon solve all of America’s many problems. One man—no matter how talented and promising—can not do this, nor can one or two presidential terms. Over the past 20 years we have dug ourselves into a huge hole, and have squandered resources and reputation aplenty. We have lost our way and compromised our values. We have become a nation of individuals and consumers, rather than a community of citizens.

But in his inaugural address, President Obama called on us to begin rebuilding our shattered country. And he provides what any great leader does—an example for the rest of us.

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