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Posted by on Dec 30, 2009 in Economy, Health, International, Politics, Society, War | 6 comments

Fighting Over the Squandered Decade (Guest Voice)

WASHINGTON — Certain decades shape the country’s political life for generations by leaving behind an era to embrace or, at least as often, to scorn.

The 1960s were definitely such a decade. The 1930s qualify, and so do the 1980s. But as important as all these periods have been, their significance may be dwarfed by the reckless and squandered decade that is, mercifully, ending.

I’m afraid that the past 10 years will be seen as a time when the United States badly lost its way by using our military power carelessly, misunderstanding the real challenges to our long-term security, and pursuing domestic policies that constrained our options for the future while needlessly threatening our prosperity.

I am aware that the previous paragraph is thoroughly controversial, and that befits any description of a politically consequential decade. Much of the contention surrounding Barack Obama’s presidency is simply a continuation of our argument over the effects of George W. Bush’s time in office.

That is why Obama, despite his fervent wishes, has been unable to usher in a new period of consensus. Bush’s defenders know that Obama’s election represented a popular reaction against the consequences of the 43rd president’s time in office. Because Obama is both the anti-Bush and the leader of the post-Bush cleanup squad, his success would complete the rebuke. So the Bush camp — Karl Rove’s regular contributions to The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages are emblematic — must stay on the attack.

Domestically, Obama inherited an economic catastrophe. Dealing with the wreckage required a large expenditure of public funds that increased a deficit already bloated by the previous president’s decision to fight two wars and to cut taxes at the same time. Bush’s defenders, preferring to focus attention away from this earlier period of irresponsibility, act as if the world began on Jan. 20, 2009, by way of saddling Obama with the blame for everything that now ails us. But the previous eight years cannot be wished away.

Our current president is more deliberate about the use of American power than his predecessor was, and determined to repair America’s image with other nations. Obama is committed to fighting terrorism, but does not believe that a “war on terror” should define American foreign policy.

This leads directly to another essential argument over the meaning of the last decade: whether the proper response to the 9/11 attacks included not only the widely supported retaliation in Afghanistan but also the invasion of Iraq. Obama’s view — that the Iraq War wasted American power and dissipated good will toward us around the world — is a direct reproach to the core assumptions of the Bush foreign policy.

So is Obama’s refusal “to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests,” as he put it in his recent West Point speech, as well as his insistence upon appreciating “the connection between our national security and our economy.” This measured approach to the use of force is antithetical to a foreign policy based on “bring ’em on” and sweeping pledges to “defeat our enemies across the world.”

But this makes it imperative for Obama to inspire trust in his capacity to thwart terrorism, and his administration’s initial response to the Christmas Day airliner attack fell short. Republicans were shameless in politicizing the incident, knowing that rehabilitating Bush’s approach to terrorism depends upon discrediting Obama’s. The president can’t afford to give them anything to work with, as he finally seemed to grasp on Tuesday.

It should not surprise us that the battle for the future will be shaped by struggles over the past. How often over the last 40 years have conservatives defended their policies in the name of rolling back “the excesses of the ’60s”? For even longer, liberals were charged with being locked into “the New Deal approaches of the 1930s.” Liberals, in turn, pointed proudly to both eras as times of unparalleled social advance.

As for the 1980s, they remain a positive reference point for conservatives even as progressives condemn the Age of Reagan for opening the way to the deregulatory excesses that led to the recent downturn.

Americans instinctively recoil at living too much in the past. Yet we have no choice but to reach a settlement about the meaning of the last 10 years. It is the only way we will successfully turn the next 10 into a decade of renewal.

This column is copyrighted and licensed to run in full on TMV. (c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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  • JSpencer

    The (probably inevitable) partisan-centric reactions to Dionne’s well-reasoned observations about the decade won’t change the fact that we are paying a high price for all the lost potential and squandered opportunities. To call it a shame would be understatement of the highest order.

  • JSpencer

    But we should always be questioning government actions no matter who is in power.


    (sans history amnesia or revisionist history (of course) since history is critically important to informing the present – however inconvenient that might be to partisan interests and/or those who shy away from accountability)

    • ProfElwood

      sans history amnesia or revisionist history (of course) since history is critically important to informing the present – however inconvenient that might be to partisan interests and/or those who shy away from accountability

      Sorry, I had to call that out. You put the most important part in parentheses.

      • JSpencer

        No apology necessary; I never mind being quoted – so long as I’m quoted accurately. 🙂 If you think history is important and that revisionist history is detrimental than we’re both on the same page.

  • jeff_pickens

    Thanks so much for this article. From the huge chunk of money lost in my 401K, to actual changed relationships and lost friendships that came about because of toxic partisan rhetoric on both sides of the fence, to a sense that we simply lost something important with Rovian demonization and “real Americans” versus ?Unreal ones? and “with us or against us” Manichaean certainties that became the norms of political dialogue–some politicians suggesting secession, some wanting some return of a McCarthy-era “check” on who’s patriotic and who’s not–I just want to write the whole thing off…

    Here’s to 2010 and the next decade!

  • JSpencer

    Yup, sure would be nice if we could put that whole “divide America” BS behind us. Of course a dumbed down public that buys into it just because it’s pushed by a bunch of damned fools on soapboxes has nobody to blame but itself.

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