This September 11th marked the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Preparations for the the 10-year milestone were subdued. There was no concerted effort to whip-up a patriotic campaign as in years past. One gets the impression that if it could, the bourgeoisie would rather just skip the ceremonies altogether. There was of course a memorial service at Ground Zero. However, the assembled political leaders only read somber poetry, as the 9/11 Victims Memorial was finally unveiled at Ground Zero. While families of the dead were permitted to attend the ceremony, survivors of the attacks and First Responders were told there wasn’t room for them that day.
On the day of the attacks itself, panic and worry engulfed the population. The media reported numerous unconfirmed rumors. Sheer pandemonium and confusion were the only consistent things about that day. But soon after the population began to react with a profound sense of grief and solidarity for the dead and a desire to help the injured. The first impulse from the population was not anger and revenge, it was solidarity for those who were killed or injured. Ordinary people lined up to donate blood for the wounded. Firefighters, construction workers, public servants of all kinds and ordinary workers ignored the perils of smoke, fire and toxic debris to rush to the disaster site to aid in the rescue efforts.
Nevertheless, the US bourgeoisie wasted no time transforming the tremendous upsurge of empathy within the population into the false solidarity of a patriotic war psychosis. In the span of a few days, President Bush was transformed from an incompetent bumbler to the courageous leader of an aggrieved nation ready to seek revenge on its attackers and all who harbored them. Within hours, the US state declared Al Qaeda unilaterally responsible for the attacks. The media parroted this story across the airwaves without so much as raising an eyebrow. Anyone who questioned the official narrative was immediately dismissed as a quack conspiracy theorist or a traitor. As Bush himself said in the days after the attacks, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
These ominous words were meant as a warning to all parties—foreign and domestic—that the United States meant business. Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc ten years earlier the US was experiencing the collapse of its own bloc. The ‘New World Order’ saw the first war in Iraq, where the US was able to rally around it a sizeable coalition of allies, but the disciplinary effect was short lived. Differences between the great powers became clear in the mid 90s during the collapse of ex-Yugoslavia and the conflict in Bosnia. The US increasingly used NATO to bypass the UN. In the absence of bloc discipline, it was increasingly ‘every man for themselves’.
War was in the offing. Afghanistan, where the Taliban regime was said to harbor Bin Laden, was sized up to feel the wrath of American bombs and cruise missiles, but almost immediately suspicion became rampant that the administration’s real target was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. At any rate, the United States was going to war and it wouldn’t be the kind of limited operation we had gotten used to from U.S. imperialism in the years since the Vietnam War. Any mobilization for a major war demands the acquiescence of the working class. As Condoleezza Rice said in her testimony to the 9/11 Commission in 2004, “The U.S. government did not act against the growing threat from Imperial Japan until the threat became all too evident at Pearl Harbor. And, tragically, for all the language of war spoken before September 11, this country simply was not on a war footing. ...Bold and comprehensive changes are sometimes only possible in the wake of catastrophic events -- events which create a new consensus that allows us to transcend old ways of thinking and acting.” (CNN, 04/08/04).
If nothing else, the US state took full advantage of the horror over the first attack on the continental United States since the British burned Washington in the War of 1812, to announce a new global “War on Terror”, continuing its inglorious legacy of launching wars after historic ‘incidents’ have taken place: the annexation of Texas in 1845, the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898, that attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964.
Bush: The “Worst President” in American History?
In the months after 9/11, NATO invoked Article 5 of its statues for the first time in history, declaring that an attack on one was an attack on all. Remarkably, it was the leaders of France who led this move. The questioning of American imperialist leadership by the other major powers seemed to be over. On the domestic front, the bourgeoisie drummed up the patriotic fervor. Congress quickly passed sweeping legislation limiting civil liberties and authorizing domestic spying in ways not seen since the Red Scare.
So, what then is behind the U.S. bourgeoisie’s apparent reluctance to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in a more bellicose and dramatic fashion? The image of the US bourgeoisie marking the anniversary amidst the clutter of the still incomplete Freedom Tower at Ground Zero stands as a stark symbol of the incomplete and ultimately failed imperialist projext. Although the United States was able to reap an immediate benefit from the attacks in terms of rallying the population behind its war aims and forcing the other major powers to acquiesce to its military campaign in Afghanistan, the Bush administration’s efforts to carry the war to Iraq were doomed to squander this momentum.
The Bush administration’s callous diplomatic policies and cowboy mentality made it easy for the other major powers to challenge its desire to take the war to Iraq. Among the great powers, the Bush administration was only able to gain the participation of the UK in its invasion and occupation of Iraq. In particular, France, Germany and Russia stood as consistent critics of the US’s military adventure in Iraq. Although they were unable to prevent the US from carrying out its invasion, their ability to put the US’s purported rationale for the war into question—Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction—forced the US into a particularly embarrassing display of diplomatic deception and outright lying, evidenced by Colin Powel’s pathetic presentation to the UN Security Council in the Spring of 2003.
Failing to gain any international sanction for its war efforts in Iraq, the US was forced into a mostly unilateral action, despite putting together a dubious “coalition of the willing.” Relations between the US and France fell to a low point in modern history. The US would enter the Iraq war mostly isolated and with international public opinion squarely against it. The world’s super power could no longer credibly claim to be acting in the name of peace and democracy. It was now the aggressor in a preemptive war against an enemy that had nothing to do with 9/11. The post invasion revelation that Iraq in fact had no weapons of mass destruction only reinforced the negative image of the United States that the Bush administration’s policies had largely created. Moreover, the Bush Administration’s aggressive prosecution during this period of the so-called “War on Terror” gave the lie to any attempt to paint itself as a benevolent power guided by the rule of law.
Militarily, the Iraq occupation proved to be a complete quagmire for the better part of the decade. The fateful decision by the US occupation authorities to destroy the Bathist bureaucracy, led to a brutal insurgency by the Sunni minority against the US occupation and the Shiite majority. Soon, Iraq descended into utter chaos with sectarian violence tearing the country apart. American casualties, fairly low in the initial invasion, climbed steadily upwards as it seemed the US had only turned a relatively stable country under the iron hand of a cruel dictator into a hotbed of Islamic fanaticism and terrorism.
Within the US bourgeoisie, the sense that the invasion of Iraq had been a mistake, or at the very least was being badly mismanaged, became more prevalent. However, the attempt to replace Bush with the much statelier warrior John Kerry the 2004 was a miserable failure. The main factions of the US bourgeoisie failed to rally to his candidacy in time and a skillful Karl Rove was able to manipulate domestic wedge issues to ensure Bush’s reelection. Stuck with the insufferable Bush for the next four years, the main factions of the bourgeoisie launched a media campaign to pressure him once again to change course in Iraq. The Bush administration doubled down. The neo-conservative Wolfowitz was out, but Rumsfeld remained. Secretary of State Powell would leave the administration in disgust. Violence continued to dominate the scene in Iraq, and by the time of the 2006 mid-term elections the US really seemed to be bogged down in with no end in sight. Public opinion turned dramatically against the Iraq War and the Bush administration itself. A change in ruling team was sorely needed, but how to accomplish this?
The 2006 mid-term elections were a groundswell for the Democrats. Winning control of both houses of Congress, they pressed the Bush administration to do something to remake the US’s imperialist image. Bush was forced to dump Rumsfeld, replacing him with a figure more acceptable across the political spectrum: Robert Gates. However, this was only the prelude to the ultimate coup d’gras: the replacement of the Republican President with a Democratic one in the 2008 Presidential election. Before this could be accomplished, the military situation in Iraq had to be brought under some measure of control. The “Surge” strategy implemented from 2007 onwards did encounter some success, but the US population was growing increasingly tired of the war and the President’s approval ratings continued to nosedive. Only a dramatic outcome to the 2008 Presidential election could restore some level of credibility to the US political system, which had suffered two terms of what many historians begin to openly call “the worst President in US history.”
Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan, had only deteriorated during the years US imperialism was distracted in Iraq. The Taliban had never been completely eliminated, Osama Bin Laden remained at large and the government of Hamid Karzai was riddled with corruption, incompetence and frustrating eccentricity. Afghanistan’s neighbor, nuclear-armed Pakistan, was itself slipping into instability, as US military brass bemoaned the ability of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters to find sanctuary across the Af-Pak border. As the 2008 Presidential campaign got underway, Obama rose to prominence as the consensus candidate of the main factions of the US bourgeoisie, promising to refocus US imperialism’s efforts on Afghanistan and take a harder line with Pakistan.
On the domestic level, the evolution of US society under Bush was marked by the inflation of a massive real estate bubble, which saw home prices spiral over the course of the first half of the decade. Fueled by the Federal Reserve’s easy money, low interest rate policies, Americans were able to borrow massive sums of money, using their homes as virtual ATM machines to fuel consumer driven demand. Under the aegis of so-called “liar loans” the real estate frenzy penetrated American society, as even those without jobs, undocumented immigrants and college students were able to qualify for adjustable rate mortgages to buy newly built McMansions in the US’s rapidly expanding suburbs and exurbs. The phenomenon of families running up credit card bills to buy daily necessities, only to refinance them into new real estate loans every six months or so was a common feature of this period. This process of the hyper-leveraging of the US working class was aided and abetted by Wall Street, who created new exotic mortgage-backed financial products. These products were ostensibly designed to “spread the risk” and “share the wealth,” but in reality only created a Sword of Damocles hanging over the entire global economy—what came to be known after the fact in the economics literature as “systemic risk.”
Although these policies allowed the American working-class a temporary respite to fulfill Bush’s call to consume the economy back to health, it became increasingly apparent that the real estate bubble could not last. When the interest rates on many so-called “sub-prime” loans finally reset in mid-2007, millions of American “homeowners” suddenly found themselves unable to make their mortgage payments. It wasn’t long before consumer credit dried up, millions of houses went underwater and the American working class found itself without any money to spend. Soon, the financial repercussions were felt on Wall Street itself as systemic risk asserted itself in dramatic ways. In the midst of the 2008 Presidential campaign, the US bourgeoisie found itself gripped by the greatest financial debacle in its history, with a President who had already checked out of office! The failure of Lehman Brothers in the Fall of 2008 nearly brought the entire global economy to a halt, necessitating Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury Paulson and current Fed Chairman Bernanke to put together a massive financial rescue package for the giant banking and insurance concerns. Overnight the world’s staunchest proponents of “trickle-down economics” became its most fervent Keynesian state capitalists. However, the Wall Street bailout proved extremely unpopular among the population. With millions of Americans facing foreclosure, eviction and unemployment, the idea that the state would come to Wall Street’s rescue, but leave Main Street to stew in its own juice was a step too far. The population’s distaste for their political leaders became generalized beyond the Bush administration and many in Congress were forced to actually vote against the bail-out on its first pass, causing the stock markets to plummet and provoking a general panic on the business news networks of historic proportion. The sense that the nation was on the verge of another catastrophe was widespread.
Obama: A Temporary Respite
It was in this context that the US bourgeoisie was able to pull off its one crowning success of the post-9/11 period: the election of President Barack Obama. Through an intense media barrage surrounding the historic candidacy of the first African-American to run for President, the US bourgeoisie was able to whip-up a frenzied energy among the youth and minorities to come out to the polls to vote for Obama—many participating in the bourgeois electoral circus for the first time in their lives. For much of the Fall of 2008, the looming economic catastrophe was put on the back burner as Obama’s election fulfilled the main factions of the US bourgeoisie’s desire to replace Bush with an President who could repair its image abroad, revitalize the democratic mystification, give the American working class hope in the electoral arena and distract it from the economic crisis.
Nevertheless, events since Obama’s election have proven that the bourgeoisie’s hope was misplaced. As President, Obama has proven even more divisive of the population than Bush was. The attacks against him from opposing Republican and Tea Party politicians are twice as vicious as anything meted out to Bush by Democrats. For all the electoral energy Obama was able to create among the youth as a candidate, as President he has created even more energy among the Republican Party and its constituency in pursuit of his defeat in 2012. While the electoral energy Obama created in support of the democratic mystification was doomed to fade; the hatred, paranoia and outright lunacy his Presidency has engendered among Republicans has proven stubbornly intractable.
The divisions, recriminations and maneuvers taking place today within the US bourgeoisie are so deep and so severe as to call into question the signature ideological division of labor between the Democratic and Republican Parties and even the legitimacy of the democratic illusion itself among large sectors of the population. Whatever boost the US’s democratic illusion received from Obama’s election—which itself was only a corrective to the damage done by Bush—has, only three years later, been totally lost. On the domestic socio-economic level, the Obama administration has proven completely impotent in the face of the “Great Recession.” With his economic team consisting mostly of recycled Clinton era economists and Wall Street insiders, it was unable to lower unemployment through the rather weak stimulus measures it pursued early on. Instead, Obama has now conceded the political ground to an insurgent right-wing and pursued austerity and deficit reduction.
On the social level, the American working class is living through the most severe attack on its living and working conditions since the Great Depression. Home foreclosures continue apace as everywhere the state abandons any pretense to the rule of law permitting banks with dubious title to seize the homes of workers too beaten down to even attempt to fight back on the terrain of bourgeois legalism. Unemployment benefits have run out for millions of long-term workers, with millions more facing cut off at the end of the year. Ten years after 9/11, the much hoped for social peace has been transformed into a veritable social powder keg with little indication of the direction popular anger over the crisis will take.
On the imperialist level, Obama has met with some success in repairing the US’s image abroad, undoing the worst of the damage the Bush administration did. On this level, the main factions of the bourgeoisie have mostly supported the Obama administration. However, on the signature foreign policy issue of his campaign—the successful conclusion of the war in Afghanistan—Obama has not met with the same success. On the contrary, Afghanistan remains a total quagmire, even after the brutal dispatch of Bin Laden earlier this year. So intractable is the situation in Afghanistan, that the US suffered its greatest one-day loss of life in the now ten-year long war just last month, when the Taliban were able to down a US military helicopter with a primitive rocket propelled grenade.
The recent US involvement in the Libya campaign has been a mixed bag for US imperialism. While it was able to achieve its stated goal of toppling the Gadaffi regime without the loss of a single US life, it did this by “leading from behind,” relying on other NATO powers to carry out the bulk of the five month air campaign in support of a disparate group of rebels nobody is certain can be trusted. Although the US was able to achieve its immediate objectives behind a multi-lateral veneer this time, this has allowed France and the UK to flex some credible military muscle of their own for the first time in years. Moreover, the strategy of leading from behind has proven fodder for domestic political bashing of Obama by Republicans desperate to paint him as a failure for allowing other countries to take the lead and failing to bring the full force of US military might to bear.
With such a record the past decade, its no wonder the US bourgeoisie has downplayed the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The hopes of a seamless continuation of the American imperial project into the twenty-first century have proven to be a real chimera. The disaster of the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq, its total incompetence in managing the domestic economy, its ultimate inability to lead society in a credible fashion has wrought irreparable damage to US hegemony and squandered whatever benefit that the US accrued in the immediate aftermath of the attack on its own soil.
Moreover, the Obama administration has proven unable to reverse the totality of the Bush administration’s many failures, just as his own Presidency has proven to be an important moment in the historic political crisis of American state capitalism. It’s not surprising then that at this time, the US bourgeoisie would like to keep the 10th anniversary memorial ceremonies low key.
 See “The Strengthening of the Repressive Apparatus” in Internationalism #146.
 See “Media Campaigns Put Pressure on Bush to Change Policy” in Internationalism #136.
 The US bourgeoisie must have watched coverage of the recent British riots wondering if they are prelude to the future of its own cities. See article in this issue on the riots.
 Ironically, many of the troops killed when the helicopter went down are said to be from the same super-secret special operations unit that carried out the raid to kill Bin Laden.