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Political Intelligence

US, in turmoil, risks fulfillment of bin Laden’s aims

(Chris Hondros/ Getty Images/ File 2001)
By Glen Johnson
Globe Staff / August 14, 2011

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Amid all the hardship in America right now, there may be an even harder truth.

Coming up on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, what more could Osama bin Laden have wanted for the United States?

The economy is struggling through its worst period since the Great Depression.

The US political system is virtually paralyzed, with the lower chamber of Congress effectively holding a veto over the will of the president.

The war in Afghanistan continues toward an uncertain end, with 30 more troops added to the body count after last weekend’s Chinook helicopter crash.

And there has been a spike of violence in Iraq, where combat operations have ostensibly ceased.

Not all of this was part of the specific plan that crystal clear September morning a decade ago. But there is a thread that connects it all, and it has shaken the foundation of the country that bin Laden and his terrorist followers declared their enemy.

With bin Laden vanquished thanks to members of the same SEAL team that lost members in the helicopter crash, the challenge today is a set of issues still capable of achieving his principal aim: knocking the United States from its lofty world perch.

After three planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a fourth plummeted into a field in Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush vowed revenge.

Less than a month later, he launched airstrikes on Kabul, Kandahar, and other Afghan locations, aiming to oust the Taliban regime that harbored bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.

Less than two years later, Bush followed up with a similar coalition attack on Iraq. The aim there was to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, who was accused of harboring weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States or its allies.

The near-unanimity of congressional support for the Afghanistan invasion contrasted with bitter division over the Iraq attack, shaping the 2004 presidential election - which Bush nonetheless won - and the 2008 campaign, which his Republican Party lost as a war-weary country declared it wanted change.

During this foreign focus, a string of domestic problems - including the subprime mortgage crisis, the banking collapse, and the rising price of gasoline - triggered the recession that cemented President Obama’s victory in fall 2008.

The Democrat’s response to that cornucopia of issues during the first two years of his administration, as well as his push for his prime presidential policy objective, a federal universal health care program, then fueled the Tea Party movement’s rise.

It also cost him the House majority in last year’s midterm elections and triggered the recent partisan showdown over the country’s debt ceiling.

The way that debt accumulated offers its own lens on the past decade.

It offers a nonpartisan, nonpolitical way of leveling responsibility for the foreign and domestic problems that have shaken the country to its core.

Of the $14.3 trillion national debt, $1 trillion of it was accumulated before the 1980s administration of President Reagan. Government, congressional, and banking sources show the Republican helped the debt nearly triple, increasing it by $1.9 trillion during his eight years in office.

President George H.W. Bush, a fellow Republican, added nearly as much, $1.5 trillion, while President Clinton, the Democrat who succeeded him, added slightly less, $1.4 trillion.

The boom in debt accumulation occurred during the two terms of George W. Bush, who was president when bin Laden attacked.

Over two terms, Bush added $6.1 trillion to the debt, including $1.5 trillion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and $1.8 trillion for the tax cuts whose repeal was a sticking point in the recent debt-limit negotiations between Obama and, in particular, House Republicans.

Since taking office, Obama has added $2.4 trillion to the debt, including $1.1 trillion for the economic stimulus package and tax cuts he believed would help lift the country out of recession.

Those numbers speak for themselves, giving an objective basis for examining how the country has lived, acted, and voted in the post-9/11 era. They can also offer a dispassionate context for resolving the problems that could achieve bin Laden’s goals in absentia.

Glen Johnson is lead blogger for Political Intelligence, available online at www.boston.com/politics. He can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.