SAN FRANCISCO -- Traveling the country on the exhausting business of promoting my book "President Nixon: Alone in the White House," I have, predictably, been asked the same question in almost every interview: "What would Nixon have done after the Sept. 11 attacks?"
I could say that the 37th president would have blamed the communists and ordered the nuking of Moscow and any other place that came to mind. And he might actually have said (but not done) those things before he calmed down and began the slogging work of trying to figure out a less dangerous way to get even -- which is about what we are doing right now.
But this was my answer: He would have seen them coming. The attacks would not have happened during the Cold War. The president and the nation were paying attention then. We would have understood the buildup of Arab failure, anger and hatred that led to mass murder, and acted to protect ourselves or eliminate the threat long before it reached our shores. That is what foreign policy used to be about before our triumph over communism.
We won the Cold War, finally, in 1989, and then we went home and tried, with some success, to forget about places and times far away. We spoke of ourselves as "the only superpower" and "the indispensable nation." Newspapers, magazines and networks closed one foreign bureau after another. One of the most celebrated essays of the triumph years was titled "The End of History."
In the essay and in a book titled "The End of History and the Last Man," Francis Fukuyama, a State Department policy analyst in the Reagan administration, wrote:
"What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. ... The present form of social and political organization is completely satisfying to human beings in their most essential characteristics."
Wow! Fukuyama, a victim of too good a title, was trying to put 200 years of democratic history in perspective, and he did add that the triumph of the West was "primarily in the realm of ideas and consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world."
The book came out in 1992, the year American voters replaced President George H.W. Bush, soldier, diplomat and war leader, with a young governor of Arkansas who had no foreign policy or military experience whatever. But then who needed to know anything about foreigners now that history had ended and everyone was happy? That governor, Bill Clinton, was replaced by another governor with even less foreign policy experience -- even though he was the son of the first George Bush.
It didn't seem to matter. Who could do anything bad to the world's only superpower?
Now we know that not exactly everyone in the world is completely satisfied with our brand of Western liberalism. The flaws of our complacent world view of the 1990s should have been obvious in the time of the Gulf War, when the first President Bush launched the offensive against Iraq and its monstrous leader Saddam Hussein to liberate "the people" of Kuwait and protect "the people" of Saudi Arabia. It was such a famous victory that it seemed little more than obvious proof that history was on our side forever.
Others, unfortunately, saw only a United States willing to use its super military power to preserve the tyranny of the corrupt, oil-rich royal families of both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. And things got worse in that part of the world, as the rich and royal got richer, the poor stayed somewhere close to the Middle Ages, and a young educated class emerged into stagnant Arab societies where almost two-thirds of the people were under 25 years old, and there were no modern jobs and modern pride for them.
It was in that class of young men, responding to the anti-modern rhetoric (which became anti-American rhetoric) of fundamentalist preachers that Osama bin Laden and others found their recruits for a war against both their own ruling families and the Americans who were ruling a world that had no place for them. They saw us as interested only in cheap oil and the freedom of an expanded Israel. Meanwhile, we were celebrating and barely noticed them at all. If they had called themselves communists, we would have been ready for them. But they didn't, and our guard was down -- until Sept. 11.
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