With the Cold War's end, many Americans thought we could close our air raid shelters and take the trillions of dollars that had gone into the military and put them into making our lives better by turning toward the pursuit of happiness rather than the defense of our liberty.
And some of that did happen in the last half of the 1990s, during the Clinton-era boom. But only three years into a new century, the United States finds itself plagued by rising unemployment, soaring budget deficits, constricted civil liberties, the threat of terrorist attack and the prospect of a war with, and occupation of, Iraq. We've gone from the best of times to the worst of times.
The Bush administration tells us that it is entirely because of Al Qaeda and now Saddam Hussein that we face these difficulties, but the dark clouds that hang over our country are largely the result of Bush administration policies.
Take the economy. Sure, an economic downturn was inevitable after the speculative excesses of the '90s, and 9/11 certainly hurt airlines and hotels. But the Bush policies of enormous tax cuts directed at the most wealthy, and equally large increases in military spending, will prolong the current slump well through the decade, leaving large deficits just as baby boomers begin to retire.
The nation won't necessarily be in recession, but it will suffer, as it did during the high-deficit Reagan years, from above-average unemployment and below-average growth. And our vaunted advantage over our industrial competitors will narrow.
That won't be because of Osama bin Laden; that will be because of George W. Bush.
Or take the current prospects of war with Iraq. Bad foreign policy creates bad choices, as in Vietnam in the 1960s. By the time the Iraq issue landed back in the United Nations Security Council this month, Americans had no good options about whether to go to war with Iraq. Doing so could create heavy costs down the road, increase the incidence of terrorism and split our longtime alliances; not doing so could also inspire terrorists and split other longtime alliances.
But the question is how we got to this dilemma. We got here because of bad choices.
Al Qaeda was an offshoot of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and of the first Gulf War, after which, through an act of folly, we decided to maintain a major military presence in Saudi Arabia -- creating a rallying point for Al Qaeda without improving Saudi security.
Though few of Al Qaeda's recruits came from the clash of Israelis and Palestinians, that conflict remained the single greatest source of instability in the Mideast.
After 9/11, we had a clear path before us: wage war against Al Qaeda and those regimes that sustained it, while simultaneously waging peace in the Mideast by using our considerable influence to force the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The Bush administration did wage war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But instead of seeking negotiations, the administration sided with Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, who responded to terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians by trying to destroy the Palestinian Authority -- Israel's only viable negotiating partner. That made it impossible for the U.S. to win anything but grudging support from other Arab governments for our conflict with Iraq, and it also inflamed Islamic radicals.
As for Iraq, if our initial goal had been the reasonable and important one of preventing Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons, there was a host of options that could have been pursued, such as a demand for inspections coupled with the threat of an air campaign against any potential military target.
If these efforts had failed, their failure would have created far more support for an invasion than currently exists. Instead, the Bush administration began by demanding "regime change," declaring its willingness to fight a preventive war, and sending troops.
It took the very last, fateful step before it had taken the first. As a result, the troops are there, and we have to use them or risk a credibility crisis.
We also face the entirely predictable prospect of an enhanced threat from Al Qaeda -- exactly what the Bush policies set out to eliminate. Secretary of State Colin Powell claims that Bin Laden's latest jeremiad, urging Muslims to commit acts of martyrdom to defend Iraq against the U.S., is evidence of a partnership between Hussein and Bin Laden.
What it actually shows is that U.S. foreign policy has managed to accomplish the one thing that it should have avoided: bringing into a tacit alliance two people who were previously at each other's throats and who still hold each other in contempt.
And, of course, this new threat has spawned new terrorism alerts and instructions to put duct tape on our windows, stock up on canned peaches and watch out for any swarthy-looking foreigners. It also has provided cover for conservative Republicans who want to roll back our environmental laws and privatize Medicare and Social Security.
We are on a fast train to hell, and the question is when the American people are going to decide they want to get off.
John B. Judis is senior editor of the New Republic.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times