Last year I did a piece on the top stories of the year, but with the closure of the ‘Aughts’ or whatever you want to call it, I thought a look back at the last 10 years might give some people some perspective. And what an amazing and historic decade it was.
1. September 11, 2001
The attacks on the beautiful, sunny morning of 9/11/2001 altered the world forever. For me…I was sitting in a classroom while the attacks started. Our lecturer announced that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center…and almost everyone assumed it was a tiny single seater plane or personal plane. No one assumed it was a commuter plane. We went back to class, only to hear a little later that a second plane had crashed. The classroom forced the instructors to connect a TV feed…and only then did we begin to understand…our country was at war. That is a realization that some people lack to this day.
The emotions and repercussions of those minutes reverberate to this day. Everything that has happened from that moment until now is linked. America is a different place because of how we were attacked, and how we responded. I wager that the pain will dull, as it always does as time passes. But the date will always live in an infamy that few other dates in history can match.
2. Iraq War
The everlasting historical question: was it a war of necessity or choice? What it an ethical and legal decision? Is the world, and America, better off?
I won’t try to answer any of those questions here, although I believe it was a just war and America will be better off looking back. But as a new story, it is obviously the next most important of the decade. If 9/11 defined how America viewed itself and the world, Iraq largely defined how the world viewed America, for good and bad.
Beginning politically soon after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush Administration’s attempts to get a unified world front succeeded and failed, depending on your point of view. Largely with the British, American, and Spanish contingent, as over 80 countries were involved in the U.S. led effort.
The actual invasion was a success beyond measure. The occupation was clearly a failure of epic proportions. With a large, prepared troop force, and an understanding of the underlying dynamic of Iraq society, the occupation could have gone much smoother. Clearly, that was where the Bush administration failed.
The intelligence failure on weapons of mass destruction clearly was the largest intelligence failure in history. Only the failure to anticipate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Israel’s failure to predict the Yom Kippur attack of 1973 that almost led to the fall of the Jewish state can match the size and scale of the mistake. Politically, Bush wanted to attack Iraq, that was certain. But without the intelligence failure, it is unlikely he would have been able to convince anyone that the war was a good idea.
However, Bush faced a ‘Profile in Courage’ moment. After the Republicans suffered a crushing defeat in the 2006 elections, Bush did the unthinkable…he doubled down on his bet on Iraq. Apparently against the public’s will and the will of Democrats, the surge was detested by the left, as Democrats called the war a failure. However, there is now no question that the surge is the one decision that Bush made that cannot be criticized. Looking back, all other options were worse, and the surge saved American from a ignoble defeat in the Middle East. Even stauch deniers, such as Barack Obama, have now admitted the vast overall success of the surge.
The effect of the war on American society is still to be determined. What happens when the over 100,000 troops come home? Clearly, it has had a social impact; terms such as ‘shock-and-awe’ and ‘green zone’ are now readily known by laymen. Ironically, as a political decision, there was pretty broad bipartisan support for the war that is now hated by the left. But the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his sons, and the aftermath, will likely be a discussion argued about in Law, History, Philosophy, Political Science, and Ethics classroom for time immemorial.
3. The 2000 Election: George W. Bush v. Albert A. Gore, Jr.
I think as a pivotal moment, the 2000 election edges out 2008, although both clearly have long lasting historical impact.
As a moment of political theater, no moment in American (maybe even world) history can challenge it. Gore was the son of a famous Senator and the Vice President of a relatively popular President, with Bill Clinton polling well over 50%. Bush was from a Presidential family, whose father was defeated by the current sitting President. And he was the wildly popular Governor of the second largest state in the Union.
After an entertaining and hard fought campaign, with both sides having plenty of successes and failure. the polls were dead even going into election weekend. From that moment on, politial hijinx was on. First was the leak of the closed file on Bush’s DWI charge as a young man. Then the debates over the place of third party candidates on the ballots were fought over legally, with both Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan vying for vital votes in key states.
On election day, the disarray started. Voter turnout was at all time highs across the country, and many polling places could not keep up. There were questions of voter irregularities (although to this day, no massive fraud was discovered). The electoral college went pretty much as expected…Gore taking the coasts, and Bush taking the south and west. The swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Ohio would hold the key to the election.
Ohio would go to Bush, and Pennsylvania to Gore, as predicted. As the night wore down, several small states were in the balance. New Mexico and Oregon were too close to call. However, with Gore holding 255 electoral votes to Bush’s 246, it all came down to one state: Florida.
As election night ended, confusion rang supreme. Earlier in the night most of the networks had declared Gore the winner of Florida, but that was actually before key votes were in from the Florida panhandle. As the night wore on, at approximately 2 A.M. the networks declared Bush the winner of Florida and the general election. It was widely believed, and Gore actually conceded the election. However, a few hours later, upon learning how close the election was, Gore called Bush back and withdrew the concession.
The Florida recount will go down in American history as a surreal moment in our democracy. For 43 days, the recount held the attention of the country and the world. Forever engraining terms such as ‘chads’, ‘butterfly ballot’, and made Katherine Harris a hero and villain. The Florida Supreme Court had ruled that the recount could continue until November 26th, allowing four counties to recount all of their votes. However, not all the counts were finished on the 26th at which time the vote was certified by the state of Florida, declaring Bush the winner by 537 votes.
In a move some found surprising, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear part of the Bush’s November 22nd appeal. Though it rejected several of Bush’s points of appeal, it did agree to hear arguments a week later, on December 1, concerning the ruling of the Florida Court that allowed hand recounts in some counties but not all. Bush argued that this was a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. After weeks of defeats, many felt the Supreme Court would deal the final blow – but instead, in a split 4-3 decision, the Florida Court ruled that not only did the disputed Dade and Palm Beach county undervote ballots have to be hand counted, but all undervotes in the whole state would have to be recounted. The decision came at a late hour, 10 p.m. Eastern time, and it did not bode well for Gore. By a vote of 7-2, the Court said that the Florida Supreme Court had erred in calling for a manual recount. But by only a 5-4 vote, it declared that the counting of the undervotes only amounted to a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. It sent the case back to the Florida Supreme Court, essentially saying that there may be remedies for Gore, but whatever the remedy, it could not include a recount.
Gore quickly accepted that there were no alternatives, and finally conceded. In hindsight, it was the right decision. The first independent recount was conducted by The Miami Herald and USA Today. The Commission found that under most recount scenarios, Bush would have won the election, but Gore would have won using the most extreme and lax standards.
In the most contested election in U.S. history, George W. Bush won the electoral vote 271-266 (with a mere 537 votes in Florida determining the margin of victory). Al Gore would be 3rd person to win the popular vote and lose the Presidency (Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden in 1876, and in 1888 Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland). Gore would win half a million more votes…but went home empty.
The rancor and division that was borne from the aftermath of the election lasts to this day. Hard core Democrats still believe the election was stolen, while Republicans feel it was a fair decision with the facts at hand. 2000 was the beginning of the ‘Red State/Blue State’ divide. In any case, the election aftermath helped define Bush’s Presidency, and the rest of the decade.
4. The 2008 Election: The election of Barack H. Obama
2008 had far less excitement and anxiety than the 2000 election…but in historical terms, it may eventually supercede it. The election of the first African-American President has clearly resounding historical connotations for the country and the world-at-large.
Obama was a first term Senator from Illinois, who other than an impressive speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, had largely been insignificant. He ran against Hillary Clinton, 2 term Senator from New York and former First Lady of the United States, who was attempting her own bid at history.
The real excitement was in the Democratic primaries. The Clinton and Gore camps held a primary race for the ages, with heightened vitriol that usually was reserved for the General election. Ultimately, Obama would slip by Clinton by the slimmest of margins.
With Bush’s devastatingly poor popularity ratings, and the economy heading for a tailspin, Republican nominee John McCain had little hope of victory. To compound that, he ran an astoundingly bad campaign that never was accepted by the conservative base. Obama would win the election by a 53%/46% margin.
Obama’s election clearly is a turning point is race relations, and the societal impact of his years in the White House may not be known for a generation. So far, Obama has led as the most liberal President in a generation, and thus made the country even more partisan than it was with his predecessor, a fantastic achievement. That said, historically speaking, Obama’s ascendancy to the White House was an achievement for the ages.
5. The 2008 Financial Collapse
Depending on who you talk to, the financial collapse in September 2008 ranks only second to the Great Crash of 1929 as a harbinger of how close the world economy can get before it falls into the precipice.
There are a multitude of causes for this crisis; some public, some private, but almost everyone had to take some blame. The recession started as most recession do, in late 2007. However, it took an unusual turn as financial institutions started to crumble. This was largely because of defaults of risky home loans (subprime) that infiltrated the entire industry.
First, Bear Stearns in the spring (which was saved by the Treasury Dept.) and then Lehman Brothers (which was not). The fall of Lehman in hindsight was a mistake…and led to the immediate loss of confidence in the entire market. Trading of cash and loans virtually stopped…the vital life blood of capitalism.
Immediately, Bush, his Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, NY Fed Director Timothy Geithner (now Treasury Secretary) and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke stepped in. The Fed started loaning unprecedented amounts of cash to cash starved institutions, and the Federal government came up with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). TARP to this day is highly controversial, and its goals have changed more times than I can count. But whatever the program, it did save the economy from complete ruin. How long it takes for us to get out of the hole…time will tell.
6. The Afghanistan War, Pakistan and the War on Terror
I thought of dividing these two, but in reality, they are one in the same. You cannot really separate the two, unlike Iraq, which both intellectually and historically can be argued on its own.
Quickly after 9/11, Bush decided to take out the Taliban in Afghanistan if they did not turn over Osama Bin Laden. On October 7, 2001, U.S. forces attacked what few installations the Taliban had. Using primarily special forces and local groups like the Northern Alliance, they quickly pushed the Taliban out of Kabul and into the south.
The problem, ultimately, is Pakistan. It began with the failure to capture Bin Laden in Tora Bora, as he snuck off into Pakistan. Other Al Qaeda have followed. That causes two problems: it has destabilized the nuclear power Pakistan, and prevent the U.S. from exterminating the Taliban from the area. Frankly, you can argue about what has happened since 2002…but in reality, not much has changed on the ground.
The War on Terror (or whatever ridiculous gobbledygook name the Obama Administration gives it) is, as Bush called it, a generational conflict. And it is totally misunderstood. It is not a reaction to lack of democracy and upward mobility in the Middle East at all. Most of the terrorists we see outside of the Middle East are well educated, come generally from wealthy families, and many studied abroad. Sure, terror acts within Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, etc. may be based on economic factors, but the War is not.
We continue to live in a dream world here in the United States. You would think 9/11 would have woken us up. Well, it woke half of us up. To this day, the Obama Administration looks at this as a police action, and not a war.
To Obama’s credit, however, he has doubled down on his Afghan/Pakistan strategy. It is a huge gamble that will only succeed if he is totally committed…a question that is still up in the air.
7. China, India, and Brazil Ascending
The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) led much of the economic growth over the last decade. Russia fell off the map during the recent economic crisis, and it is uncertain when it will have a resurgence. However, the other three continue to drive the world economy.
Led by China, these three nations have increased the population of the world’s middle class by approximately 1 trillion people: that is right, 1 trillion. The economic boom in these countries is not just extraordinary; it is almost miraculous. All three countries were mired in decades long struggles with socialism that had clearly failed. But then in the 1990s, largely to the WTO and other trade agreements, their economies opened up and boomed.
How far will they go? At the current pace, China would take over the U.S. as the leading economic power sometime around 2050. However, it is highly questionable whether they can maintain that pace of growth, and whether the growth is real at all. India and Brazil, as democracies, are growing at more reasonable paces, but have their own internal struggles.
There is no question, however, that although the U.S., Japan, and Europe will grow, the burgeoning economies will drive the increase in economic wealth for the next century. How the traditional powers adapt to this may largely define the next century.
8. 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
It is a sad commentary on the news attention of the western powers that one of the largest natural catastrophes in modern history ranks so low on this list. I think it is more important, but I think many others have simply forgotten about it.
On December 26, 2004, a large earthquake occurred under the Indian ocean floor. This triggered a tsunami of enormous proportions that affected the entire Indian Ocean basin. The wave created reached 30 meters (100 feet) in height in some places…and left many people with no escape.
170,000 Indonesians, 35,000 Sri Lankans, 18,000 Indians, among others ranging from Australia to Africa died in the catastrophe. All told, 230,000 people died within hours, and millions were displaced from their homes. To this day, many of the coastal areas have not recovered. The catastrophe is, to this day, simply mind-boggling.
9. Hurricane Katrina
If not for the 2004 Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina would have certainly taken the place of top natural disaster of the decade. But Katrina was more than a horrible hurricane for Americans; it was a sign of how incompetent our Federal, State, and Local Governments are to this day.
Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States on Monday, August 29, 2005. It quickly flooded the levees in New Orleans, and basically made the city into a reservoir. Severe destruction was laid from Texas to Florida, with many coastal communities being wiped out. It was New Orleans that had the most casualties, however, as the poor and indigent, many of them African American had no way to get out of the city. In all, 1,836 people would lose their lives in one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history.
10. The Death of Michael Jackson
I was a Michael Jackson fan when Michael Jackson wasn’t a caricature of himself…in the early 80s. After that, his misadventures, including the never discounted but never disproved child abuse charges, basically ended his career for most people in this country, although his popularity never waned in Europe and Asia.
That said, Jackson was still an icon. He defined the 80s music scene, and certainly his effects on the music and dance industries resonates to this day. There are few people of his stature in the entertainment industry any more. And for all of his demons, Jackson did provide millions to charities around the world, and was well known in Hollywood circles for trying to give back to the community.
His death this summer was probably more shocking because, in many ways, Jackson was always this generation’s Peter Pan…always trying to stay young. That probably led to his mental instability…but certainly also led to his persona. His death at an early age shocked not only the U.S., but the world at large.
Honorable Mentions: Enron collapse, Shooting massacres (incl. Ft. Hood, Columbine, and Virginia Tech), Death of Pope John Paul II, Osama Bin Laden, Global Warming, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, 2008 Beijing Olympics, the release of the seventh and final Harry Potter book (The Deathly Hallows), Mumbai Terrorist attacks of 2008, Attack on Indian parliament in 2001, North Korea’s nuclear bomb detonation, the 2009 Iranian election protests, AIDS relief in Africa.