Jun 10

With the economy reeling, a broken health care system and a widening budget deficit, President Obama inherited domestic challenges rare for any modern American president. On top of this, political commentators and pundits noted he also faced unprecedented foreign policy challenges. Entire books -- like David Sanger’s The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power -- have been written on the subject.

Challenging? Yes. Unprecedented? No. Compared to the majority of American history, our international position is quite unremarkable and relatively tame.

At the dawn of our nation, the question confronting America was whether or not it could survive. The old nations of Europe still wielded massive armies and territorial ambitions. We went to war with Britain a few short years after ratifying our constitution--and our capital burnt to the ground for the first and last time. America was wilderness, the vast majority of our continent had not been explored, much less tamed.

Sixty years later, our position had hardly improved. An unpopular President, Abraham Lincoln, confronted the gravest crisis in our nation’s history. Arguably a domestic issue, the Civil War was primarily a military engagement. When he took office, the country was already splitting at the seams and war was unavoidable. In less than five years, over 600,000 Americans would die, 300 times the amount of people who died on 9/11.

During the first half of the twentieth century, America faced consecutive World Wars, a Global Depression and the creation of nuclear weapons. Included in this time was one of the few attacks on American soil by a foreign power, to say nothing of the millions of military dead.

Since World War II, the succeeding presidents dealt with a situation far more dangerous than any previous international situation: nuclear extinction. When Richard Nixon took over in 1968, the country fought in the midst of a war that would kill 60,000 American young and threaten the stability of Indochina. At the same time, thousands of missiles with the capacity to destroy the entire world sat in bunkers armed ready to destroy the entire world at the press of a button. The world literally stood on a precipice until the fall of the Soviet Union.

We stood through those times and survived to now.

If America believes in one thing, it is in its own exceptionalism, a feeling that our time, national character or era is somehow special. Post 9/11, we justified extraordinary methods and actions because of our perilous national security situation. In a long view of our nation's history our current times do not seem so perilous.

May 13

In the aftermath of 9/11, the most important questions confronting America -- who was responsible and how do we bring them to justice -- were quickly answered. Al Queda and Osama Bin Laden were responsible and we would capture, kill or destroy them both.

Soon, partisanship replaced unity and one question replaced the others: who could we blame? Of all the candidates offered up by journalists, political pundits, and documentarians, two stood out: Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

How you answer the question of blame usually depends on your political leanings. For Republicans, Clinton did not combat the terrorist threat during his administration. They point to the multiple attacks launched against America in the 1990s including the first World Trade Center bombing, the attacks on US embassies and the bombing of the USS Cole, and decry his failure to respond to these attacks. They point to Clinton’s failure to kill Bin Laden or cripple Al Queda when he had the chance.

For Democrats, they say it didn’t occur on their watch and that Bush was not focused on protecting the country. The smoking gun is the infamous memo titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” from August 2001. They also blame Bush’s pre-9/11 focus on a missile defense shield and a national security cabinet filled with Cold Warriors.

The debate becomes a back and forth of blame. Republicans can claim Clinton did not go far enough in combating terrorism but then neither did the Republican controlled Congress. The nation did not care about terrorism until 9/11; the date of the first World Trade Center bombing is a footnote in history. Democrats can fault Bush, but he took the reigns of power only nine months prior to 9/11. Can he be blamed for not predicting the attacks no one else predicted?

I bring up this old topic because we again have a new president. As the Bush administration left office, they pointed to one accomplishment more then any other: since 9/11, no foreign groups conducted a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Trying to place blame for a tragedy is tricky business, as is trying to take credit for avoiding one. A close look at Bush’s success puts his assertion on shaky ground. Foreign groups attacked our Allies’ in Madrid and London and still unknown American(s) conducted deadly terrorist attacks on US soil by mailing anthrax shortly after 9/11.

And Clinton can make the same claim as Bush. After the first World Trade Center bombing, there were no foreign led terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. The caveat is, of course, that the bombing of the USS Cole occurred on Clinton’s watch, but do Republicans want to include Middle East bombings of military targets for President Bush?

These points all beg the question: when does the next terrorist attack become President Obama’s fault? Will conservatives give Obama nine months and then after that say he is responsible for the security situation? Will liberals give him longer? Will conservatives blame the next attack, as Cheney has, on Obama’s decision to end Guantanamo?

The best answer is to move past the 9/11 Blame Game. As a country, let’s focus on solving our problems, and less on assigning blame.