As the new year dawns, Americans face an unsure place in the world. Targeted by terrorists, displaced by global competition, fractured by dissenting factions within, the United States seems once more perched on the edge of a precipice. Even a young and charismatic president is not enough to keep the forces of chaos at bay.
We have faced such tipping points before. After World War II, America's military power was not sufficient to keep Europe free. Without the vision and the dollars of the Marshall Plan, Europe might never have recovered to become a major player in the global economy. Although we have since rewritten "the American century" in a triumphalist tone, President John Kennedy instead sounded chastened in his first, and only, inaugural address. He summoned Americans to renewed idealism, but he was also frank in his assessment of the task ahead:
to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, 'rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation'--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
Kennedy's phrasing is often used to describe the Cold War with communism, but I think his "twilight struggle" referred to the human condition itself -- in which there are seldom clear-cut victories or untainted heroes.
When America has rejoined that human struggle, then we may once again offer a beacon of hope for a world in need. This may not ultimately keep us safe, but if safety alone is the only goal, we will surely perish. For every dollar we spend to fight terror, should not we spend another to spark hope? Otherwise we will accomplish only the goal that al Qaeda itself has set for us: eroding America's power "through the constant expansion of the circle of confrontation."
That phrase comes from Lawrence Wright, author of the acclaimed history of al Qaeda, The Looming Tower. According to Wright, Muslims are among the poorest people on earth. He sees al Qaeda as a "snakebite," an instinctive reaction to the "river of despair" among the Muslim people. Perhaps what is needed now is a Marshall Plan for the Muslim world. We were willing to invest huge sums in European development after World War II -- why not in the Muslim people today?
Indeed, the missing link in Americans' perception of Afghanis is that they see themselves as the real freedom fighters of the Cold War, whose blood bought the collapse of the Soviet empire. They yearn for the same economic support that flowed to East Germany, Poland, and other Warsaw Pact nations in Europe during the 1990s. Instead, America turned its back on them.
When more Muslims have hope, perhaps more Americans will be safe, too.