Is it just me, or does our geopolitical soundtrack play like a 1990s remix?
Americans marked the killing of Osama bin Laden with a nation-wide block party, not unlike their celebration of Desert Storm, the 1991 operation that ejected the Iraqi army from Kuwait. Just as liberating a corrupt Arab emirate exorcised the demons of Vietnam, it seems, so has the killing of a mass murderer with a bad dye job salved the burden of an endless war on radical Islam.
The avenging angel that delivered bin Laden’s fate was a case of life imitating art—or at least a low form of art, as anyone who has seen the 1990 film Navy Seals would agree. (For the uninitiated, the film ends with Charlie Sheen getting rescued at sea after completing a dangerous mission in war-torn Lebanon. Imagine what a better world it would be, had he been left to dog-paddle his way back to the fleshpots of Beirut.)
Speaking of the U.S. Navy, I remember reporting from the deck of the carrier Independence in 1995 as it patrolled the South China Sea at a time when Beijing was acting particularly incontinent, listening to sailors and aviators lament the grueling tempo demanded by President Clinton’s adventures in East Africa and the Balkans. Today, those deployments look like a day trip when compared to the multiple tours American GIs are pulling in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, as now, a Democratic president was grappling with the legacy of his Republican predecessor’s misbegotten enterprises only to face pressure to enter new ones from neoconservatives to his right and liberal interventionists on his left. [Vote now: Which president deserves credit for Osama bin Laden’s demise?]
But what’s really flushed the ghosts of Seinfeld and Madonna’s Kabbalah phase to the surface was a handful of revealing stories last week that were obscured by Osamamania. There was Rep. John Boehner—Republican lawmaker, speaker of the House of Representatives, and high priest of the GOP’s “tax-cuts-for-the-rich” evangelism—telling reporters it was “critical to our...national security interests” to maintain a large troop presence in Iraq long after the bulk of American forces come home. The Iraqi military is still incapable of defending the country on its own, he said, so it is incumbent on Americans to “fill the gap.”
Rewind to the triumphant aftermath of Desert Storm, when it was concluded that a similar deployment of GIs should remain in Saudi Arabia to preserve Middle East stability. There they remained until the Pentagon withdrew them in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which were motivated in no small part by bin Laden’s outrage over foreign military bases on what Muslims regard as sacred ground. One wonders how many bin Ladens U.S. bases in Iraq will create? Even Boehner acknowledged that extending the Pentagon’s franchise in Iraq might be a delicate matter, if only because so many Iraqis are virulently opposed to the idea. [See a slide show of six potential terrorist targets.]
The same day Boehner’s remarks were reported in the press, the New York Times reported how assiduously U.S. security officials have cowed the Japanese government into preserving a much-loathed Marine base in Futenma, just off the island of Okinawa. This, too, has its roots in the Clinton '90s; in 1998, I was in Tokyo when the U.S. ambassador to Japan grandly announced how Washington would remove the Futenma installation in response to intense public opposition to it. Thirteen years later, the Marine base is still there, and area residents—martyrs, it seems, to the Pentagon’s duty to check “dramatic increases in China’s military capabilities,” as one U.S. diplomatic cable put it—are still seething.
In many ways, of course, America is a very different country than it was two decades ago. For much of the 1990s, Washington ran a budget surplus, and it was generally admired abroad for its robust economy and civil liberties, if not for the subtle arrogance with which its ministers conducted themselves abroad. Needless to say, the surplus is long gone, America is disparaged for its far-flung gulag and a diminished commitment to due process, and the swagger has been reduced to a shuffle. (In another example of America’s economic decay, the Financial Times last week reported how Mexico and other developing nations are hoarding gold as way of diversifying their reserves away from the struggling dollar.) Nevertheless, from the perspective of those on the business end of American empire—be they citizens who host it or the U.S. taxpayers who foot the bill—it is still very much That '90s Show.