In India, newspaper headlines were full of how Mira Nairs Monsoon Wedding had just won the Venice International Film Festivals Golden Lion prize. Thats the way we were. There were many hotspots around the world but also a certain measure of restraint. And, oh, the US was hardly seen as a rogue or uncontrolled actor by the global majority; in fact, there was overwhelming admiration for American society, in places as far away as Olan Bator and Oran.
That was the day before, and the next morning changed geopolitics as never before. 9/11 is now much more than just a horrible event of great depravity; it is now part of our lexicon, perhaps even the start of a new chapter in modern history, at least for western pundits. But through all the media-consuming events, commentary, images and impressions of the last two years, there is that unmistakable smell of US failure, of how it has lost a great opportunity to avenge a wrong in an efficient but sensible way.
Osama is still free, and the Taliban is now regrouping and able to strike close to Kabul. The despotic and dangerous monarchy in Saudi Arabia is still around, nervous yes, but as yet unrepentant. Iraq has turned into a nightmare. A new front by terrorists has opened in South-East Asia. The whole Mid-East is even more volatile than before. The only positive thing for the planet is that Uday and Qusay Hussein are now dead.
For the US especially, the world is far less safe today, despite the high-budget War on Terror. The US has lost valuable friends in its core constituency, Europe, which is now extracting its pound of flesh for insults and slurs. The whole UN establishment has been provoked into barely masked antipathy to US requests. The budget deficit has reappeared and is climbing rapidly, and just the monthly cost of Iraq and Afghan wars are now approaching that of Vietnam, close to $5 billion per month. And this doesnt even include the massive civilian reconstruction that is required.
A new report by a British think-tank specialising in arms control and nonproliferation says that while US anti-terrorism efforts may have succeeded in preventing some plots, the Al-Qaida terrorist network is stronger than before 9/11 and the war on terror has so far been a failure. The headline of a recent commentary in the New York Times reads From Swagger to Stagger and sums up the disastrous course of US foreign policy in the last two years.
The Indian media does not cover domestic trends in the US adequately, mesmerised as it is with either every American utterance on Pakistan or issues like H-1 visas, but the US military is now stretched to the breaking point and there are signs of huge divisions within the Republican establishment. The old guard is outraged at how clumsily the neo-cons have handled each and every crisis, with increasing talk of asking for the resignation of Donald Rumsfield and Paul Wolfowitz by the end of the year. In almost all polls, Bush has dropped almost 20 points since the end of the Iraq war, and his popularity is now at his lowest it has ever been. What is worse, for the first time he is now in negative territory, and in the latest CNN/Time as well as Newsweek polls, people who are definitely against Bush outnumber those who are definitely for him by a margin of 3 to 2.
In effect, there is both domestic and external uncertainty as never before revolving around the biggest power in the world, armed with what should have been a clear moral purpose and a huge repository of global goodwill. Now, nobody is quite sure where or how far the US will go. Despite the tragic enormity of events of two years ago, this period may come to be viewed as a monumentally wasted opportunity by the Bush regime in every which way.
The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors