The New Statesman Essay 2 - The big, lethal sleep

Gary Hart explains why America was caught napping on 11 September

Should the United States have foreseen the seriousness of the terrorist threat and the real possibility that major symbolic targets, such as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, would be attacked by terrorists using commercial airliners as guided missiles? Were there warnings and, if so, why were they not taken seriously? Why were rare early signals of danger disregarded by policy-makers and press alike? Most of all, what factors contributed to America's dazed entry into the new and newly dangerous 21st century?

Historians and concerned citizens will be pondering these questions for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.

As early as 15 September 1999, almost exactly two years before the attacks, the United States Commission on National Security/21st Century warned that terrorist attacks would occur on American soil, and that Americans would lose their lives, possibly in large numbers. Virtually no one listened in an America that was at peace, powerful and prosperous.

A confluence of factors contributed to America's lassitude.

First, America lost its coalescing cause. In the late 1980s, a prominent Soviet interlocutor characterised the emerging Gorbachev era as threatening to the US for this unpredictable reason: "We are about to take away your enemy." From George Kennan's admonition in 1946 that communism must be contained, until the fall of the Soviet empire in December 1991, the central organising principle for America and much of the west was the cold war effort to contain the spread of communism. The age was characterised by the Korean and Vietnam wars, together with the overthrow of unfriendly governments, support for friendly but often undemocratic governments, assassination plots against foreign leaders and countless covert operations.

But, in a veritable heartbeat, the cold war was over. Though US military spending would remain large, and defence structures would remain basically the same as during the cold war (albeit slightly smaller in scope and scale), those asked to do "net threat assessments" would be hard-pressed to identify an enemy. Some on the right struggled hard to find, in the People's Republic of China, a foe worthy of the all-out military preparedness once warranted by the former Soviet Union. Less ideological military planners settled for a post-cold war force structure large enough for "two major theatre wars", namely Korea and the Persian Gulf. Those not persuaded by the idea of an expansionist China, or the restart of the Korean and Persian Gulf wars, focused instead on the need to resuscitate Reagan's Star Wars programme in the form of a national missile defence system against attacks from "rogue states".

War itself, however, was being transformed from conflict between the massed armies of nation states to low-intensity urban conflict among tribes, clans and gangs.

While the superpowers locked horns, the second half of the 20th century saw traditional wars between nation states give way to wars of national liberation, principally carried out in Africa, Asia and Latin America against declining colonial powers. America faced unconventional, guerrilla warfare in Vietnam, as did the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Mid-century guerrilla wars of national liberation against ageing colonial powers gradually migrated to terrorist clashes between ethnic and religious factions. Ethnic nationalism, religious fundamentalism and non-state actors began to emerge.

The state lost its monopoly on violence, and the distinction between war and crime quickly began to disappear. As the cold war wound down, the US stepped up its exportation of democracy, liberalism and capitalism to parts of the world - especially the Islamic crescent - that neither shared nor appreciated them.

Following the end of the Vietnam war, most Americans did not want to be bothered by complex, local, tribal conflicts that did not seem to threaten them. The US presence in places such as Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo and elsewhere seemed unproductive and unnecessary. Those military forces stationed abroad, in places as disparate as Beirut, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, soon became targets of fanatical terrorist organisations that did not respect traditional rules of war. Our decision to contain communism had taken us down this unfamiliar road.

The cold war toll in lives, national treasure and, occasionally, prestige was enormous. As could be expected at the close of any such extended national exertion, the successful conclusion of this effort at the beginning of the last decade of a violent century led to an almost universal desire to replace collective vigilance with individual exuberance, and care with escape. Like the Roaring Twenties, the Nineties thus became a time when cautionary warnings of new dangers, necessarily vague and unfocused, would not resonate in a nation exhausted from the tensions of missile crises and "a long twilight struggle".

The age of acquisition quickly filled the vacuum created by the close of the cold war. During the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, America would be very much awake to new commercial possibilities - even as it refused to see the dangers created by a world shifting under its feet. America was transfixed for more than four decades by the threat of communism; its demise left America without its main organising principle. Containment of communism, so central to US planning throughout the second half of the 20th century, gave way to the enthusiasms and excesses of the dotcom bubble.

At the end of the century, there was a confluence of a number of revolutions. The global economy, the information revolution, round-the-clock financial markets, instant communications and mass international travel all led to the triumph of technological capitalism and, at the same time, growing global divisions between the elite haves and the increasingly desperate have-nots. Resentment of the haves by the masses of have-nots, and resentment of exported American popular culture, escalated dangerously.

The United States, triumphant in the ideological and quasi-military struggle with communism, continued to spend the 1990s exporting its values. These values were often antithetical to other cultures and societies and ideas, which threatened those, especially Islam, that hold to more traditional, autocratic, illiberal and theocratic concepts. America's popular culture - its music, films, food and style - clashed with these more constricted and traditional cultures. Against this tide of Americanism, people in many parts of the world began to identify more with ethnic and religious nationalism than with citizenship in artificially created nation states. The ability of the nation state to create homogeneous identities for its people rapidly began to disintegrate.

At home, relief from a half-century of confrontation with communism, coupled with a long economic boom throughout most of the 1990s, and worship of market values in the 1980s, produced a new Ameri- can gilded age conspicuous for its materialism and consumption. A new generation of billionaires and a virtual new social class of mere millionaires led a social movement toward luxury home-living in gated, privately secured communities, ever-expanding stock portfolios and high-style acquisitions.

The American media provided what relief they could from the stresses of vigilance by substituting entertainment for information, celebrity for facts, and gossip for ideas. The importance of the public interest gave way to the amusement of the expose. The rise of the cult of celebrity and personality replaced serious public discourse. The ownership of media outlets moved from local, public-interested families to international, commercially interested conglomerates, more concerned with corporate profits than with informing the public about issues of consequence to national life.

Concurrently, American politics became more partisan, doctrinaire and orthodox, more media-dependent, more "attack"- oriented, more commercial, and therefore more costly. The cost of seeking and holding public office rocketed. Money from special interests moved in to fill the vacuum of demand, and dominated campaign financing. Lobbyists for powerful interests gained privileged access to public policy-makers from the president downward, and to "public" spaces as intimate as Abraham Lincoln's bedroom. The public, seeing the rights and interests of ordinary Americans being sacrificed to the exigencies of the politics of money and privilege, began to stay away from the polls. Cynicism replaced any sense of national cohesion.

In part because of the phenomena of the commercial republic and the age of acquisition, the age of ego, materialism and consumption - the so-called "bonfire of the vanities" - emerged. Private virtues, such as "family values", replaced public involvement and civic duty. A society of wealth and privilege, concerned for itself, came to dominate the social and political scenes.

The decade's "long boom" featured wealth flowing upwards: the creation of a new class of the rich, a middle class holding its own, and a widening gap between rich and poor. The rising economic tide did not lift the boats of the fourth quintile of the working poor or the fifth quintile of the structurally abandoned. The information revolution, globalisation, low-cost capital, low inflation, a housing boom and a reluctance to save all led to a gilded age of consumption not seen in America for almost a century. A nation increasingly divided along class lines was not a nation for whom cohesive national purpose was easily defined.

"Ask what you can do for yourself" became the motto of the 1990s. "Government is the problem", according to the new Reagan values. As a result, the best and brightest professionals and graduates shunned Washington and flocked to Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

Liberals and liberalism became increasingly more interested in broadening the net of individual and group rights, and abandoned any Sixties notions of public service or civic duty. Conservatives argued for the right to be left untaxed, unregulated and alone. The republic of the autonomous emerged. Few, if any, political leaders were heard in the last decade of the 20th century preaching national service, social obligation or the common good. The idea of serving the country, or of caring for the national interest, all but disappeared.

Thus, when the warnings came that a new danger was emerging in the form of terrorists employing weapons of mass destruction, few Americans at the dawn of a promising new century wanted to hear them. The 1990s were, in fact, a decade of forewarning, beginning with the first attack on the World Trade Center and ending with the second. In between, American interests and symbols were attacked around the world. The US leadership was continuously surprised.

The US Commission on National Security/21st Century, as noted above, warned that terrorism was coming. In its first public report in September 1999, entitled New World Coming, the commission concluded: "America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland, and our military superiority will not entirely protect us. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers." Very few listened. Preoccupied with what they perceived to be even more sensational stuff, the media mostly ignored these and other warnings, and consequently the public went largely uninformed.

When the attacks occurred, many Americans were heard to ask: "Why weren't we warned?" But the question is not coincidental; it is systemic. As an open society, is America doomed to experience a Pearl Harbor every few decades? Are Americans incapable of anticipation and preparedness? Or are we simply doomed to pursue our sleep?

America was caught off guard by post-cold war lassitude, a loss of national purpose, preoccupation with private acquisition, the revolution in warfare, the loss of confidence in government, major upheavals in global economics and politics, and a failure to connect rights with duties.

But specific steps are available to guard against American slumber in the future. Public officials and institutions must be given responsibility and made accountable for early warnings and making sure the public is aware of impending dangers. Plans can be made for prevention of, protection from and response to attacks on the nation. Homeland security can and must be more than a passing fad. America does not have to slumber, nor does it always have to react. Now would not be too soon to consider measures - including the institutionalisation of entities such as the Commission on National Security, an effective intelligence review board and a highly trained, counter-terrorist National Guard - designed to prevent America from falling asleep again.

Senator Hart recently completed a three-year assignment as co-chair of the US Commission on National Security/21st Century