Modern history

The New Millenium

Following the prosperous but turbulent Clinton years, Americans looked forward to celebrating the new millennium with hope for the future. Yet this did not happen. Within two years, the country endured a bruising presidential election, experienced unprecedented terrorism at home, and engaged in two wars abroad. The second baby boomer president, George W. Bush, left the country as politically divided as had his predecessor.

George W. Bush and compassionate conservatism

In the first presidential election of the new century, the Democratic candidate, Vice President Al Gore, ran against George W Bush, the Republican governor of Texas and son of the forty-first president. This election marked the first contest between members of the baby boom generation, but in many ways politics remained the same. Candidates began to use the latest technology—the Internet and sophisticated phone banks to mobilize voters—but they rehashed issues stemming from the Clinton years. Gore ran on the coattails of the Clinton prosperity, endorsed affirmative action, was pro-choice on women’s reproductive rights, and warned of the need to protect the environment. Presenting himself as a “compassionate conservative,” Bush opposed abortion, gay rights, and affirmative action while at the same time supporting faith-based reform initiatives in education and social welfare. Also in the race was Ralph Nader, an anticorporate activist who ran under the banner of the Green Party, a party formed in 1991 in support of grassroots democracy, environmentalism, social justice, and gender equality. According to Nader, Gore and Bush were “Tweedledee and Tweedledum—they look and act the same, so it doesn’t matter who you get.” Despite this claim, Nader appealed to much the same constituency as did Gore.

Nader’s candidacy drew votes away from Gore, but fraud and partisanship hurt the Democrats even more. Gore won a narrow plurality of the popular vote (48.4 percent) compared with 47.8 percent for Bush and 2.7 percent for Nader. However, Bush won a slim majority of the electoral votes: 271 to 267. The key state in this Republican victory was Florida, where Bush outpolled Gore by fewer than 500 popular votes. Counties with high proportions of African Americans and the poor encountered the greatest difficulty and outright discrimination in voting, and in these areas voters were more likely to support Gore. A subsequent recount of the vote might have benefited Bush because Republicans controlled the state government. (Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate’s younger brother, was Florida’s governor, and Republicans held a majority in the legislature.) Eventually, litigation over the recount reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and on December 12, 2000, more than a month after the election, the Court proclaimed Bush the winner in a decision that clearly reflected the preferences of the conservative justices appointed by Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

George W. Bush did not view his slim, contested victory cautiously. Rather, he intended to appeal mainly to his conservative political base and govern as boldly as if he had received a resounding electoral mandate. Republicans still controlled the House, whereas a Republican defection in the Senate gave the Democrats a one-vote majority. According to the veteran political reporter Ronald Brownstein, Bush and his congressional leaders “would rather pass legislation as close as possible to his preferences on a virtual party-line basis than make concessions to reduce political tensions or broaden his support among Democrats.”

The president promoted the agenda ofthe evangelical Christian wing of the Republican Party. He spoke out against gay marriage, abortion, and federal support for stem cell research, a scientific procedure that used discarded embryos to find cures for diseases. The president created a special office in the White House to coordinate faith-based initiatives, programs that provided religious institutions with federal funds for social service activities without violating the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, a growing number of churchgoers were attending megachurches. These congregations, mainly Protestant, each contained 2.000 or more worshippers and reflected the American impulse for building large-scale organizations, the same passion for size as could be seen in corporate consolidations. Between 1970 and 2005, the number of megachurches jumped from 50 to more than 1,300, with California, Texas, and Florida taking the lead. The establishment of massive churches was part of a worldwide movement, with South Korea home to the largest congregation. Joel Osteen—the evangelical pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, the largest megachurch in the United States—drew average weekly audiences of 43,000 people, with sermons available in English and Spanish. Preaching in a former professional basketball arena and using the latest technology, Osteen stood under giant video screens that projected his image. He and other pastors of megachurches have earned enormous wealth from preaching and writing, which their followers consider justified. “Many preachers tell us that God loves us, but Osteen makes us believe that God loves us. And this is why he is so successful,” one observer reflected.

While courting such people of faith, Bush did not neglect economic conservatives. The Republican Congress gave the president tax-cut proposals to sign in 2001 and 2003, measures that favored the wealthiest Americans. Yet to maintain a balanced budget, the cardinal principle of fiscal conservatism, these tax cuts would have required a substantial reduction in spending, which Bush and Congress chose not to do. Furthermore, continued deregulation of business encouraged unsavory and harmful activities that resulted in corporate scandals and risky financial practices.

At the same time, Bush showed the compassionate side of his conservatism. Like Clinton’s cabinet appointments, Bush’s appointments reflected racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity. They included African Americans as secretary of state (Colin Powell), national security adviser (Condoleezza Rice, who later succeeded Powell as secretary of state), and secretary of education (Rod Paige). In addition, the president chose women to head the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, and Labor and also appointed one Latino and two Asian Americans to his cabinet.

In 2002 the president signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which raised federal appropriations for the education of students in primary and secondary schools, especially in underprivileged areas. The law imposed federal criteria for evaluating teachers and school programs, relying on standardized testing to do so. Another display of compassionate conservatism came in the 2003 passage of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act. The law was projected to cost more than $400 billion over a ten-year period to lower the cost of prescription drugs to some 40 million senior citizens under the 1965 Medicare Act and received support from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

The United States at War

President Bush ultimately spent little of his presidency focusing on domestic issues because events originating from abroad vaulted him into the role of wartime president. To make up for his lack of experience in foreign affairs, Bush relied heavily on Vice President Richard (Dick) Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice. In running for election in 2000, Bush had pledged: “I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders. I believe the role of the military is to fight and win war and therefore prevent war from happening in the first place.” However, Bush’s closest advisers had other ideas and sought to reshape critical parts of the post—Cold War world through preemptive force, most notably in the Persian Gulf.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the president abandoned his campaign promise to use U.S. troops cautiously and followed the counsel of his advisers. The violence that killed Kristen Breitweiser’s husband and thousands of others on that day changed the direction of U.S. foreign and domestic policies. The country undertook a war on terror, one that led to protracted and costly conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the erosion of civil liberties at home. As part of that effort, in 2002 Congress created a cabinet-level superagency, the Department of Homeland Security, responsible for developing a national strategy against further terrorist threats. Congress also enacted into law a key recommendation of the national commission that Breitweiser and the Jersey Girls pressured the government to establish. In 2004 Congress created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to coordinate the work of security agencies more effectively.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Bush acted decisively. The president dispatched U.S. troops to Afghanistan, whose Taliban leaders refused to turn over Osama bin Laden and other terrorists operating training centers in the country. A combination of anti-Taliban warlords and U.S. military special forces, backed up by American aircraft, toppled the Taliban regime and installed a proAmerican government; however, the United States did not immediately capture the elusive bin Laden, who escaped somewhere in the remote territory of Pakistan.

President Bush at Ground Zero On September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush toured the wreckage of the destroyed World Trade Center. Standing on a pile of rubble, he heard firefighters, police officers, and other rescuers shout, "USA, USA." He responded: "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." Reuters/Win McNamee/Landov

On the home front, the war on terror prompted passage of the Patriot Act in October 2001. The measure eased restrictions on domestic and foreign intelligence gathering and expanded the authority of law enforcement and immigration officials in detaining and deporting immigrants suspected of terrorism-related acts. The act gave law enforcement agencies nearly unlimited authority to wiretap telephones, retrieve e-mail messages, and search the medical, financial, and library borrowing records of individuals, including U.S. citizens, suspected of involvement in terrorism overseas or at home. The computer age had provided terrorist networks like al-Qaeda with the means to communicate quickly through electronic mail and cell phones across national boundaries and to raise money and launder it into safe bank accounts online. Computer technology also gave U.S. intelligence agencies ways to monitor these communications and transactions.

Amid rising anti-Muslim sentiments, the overwhelming majority of Americans supported the Patriot Act. In the weeks and months following September 11, some people committed acts of violence against mosques, Arab American community centers and businesses, and individual Muslims and people thought to be Muslims (such as Sikhs). Near Chicago, a crowd of about three hundred anti-Arab youths waved flags, shouted “USA, USA,” and attempted to march on a mosque. In this atmosphere, some critics complained about the harsh provisions of the Patriot Act, comparing them to the measures restricting civil liberties during the Red scare following World War I (see chapter 21). Nevertheless, in 2006 Congress renewed the act with only minor changes.

President Bush and his advisers, particularly Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, did not believe that the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan had ended the war on terror. Rather, they saw it as part of a larger plan to reshape the politics of the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions along pro-American lines. In doing so, the United States and its European allies would ensure the flow of cheap oil in order to satisfy the energy demands of consumers in these countries. Furthermore, by replacing authoritarian regimes with democratic governments in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration envisioned a domino effect that would lead to the toppling of reactionary leaders throughout the region. The establishment of pro-American, democratic nations, according to this strategy, would defeat extremist Islamic powers, thereby paving the way for resolving deep-seated, ongoing conflicts between Arabs and Israelis. In crafting this strategy, the Bush administration departed from the well-established, post—World War II policy of containing enemies short of going to war. Instead, the Bush Doctrine proposed undertaking preemptive war against despotic governments deemed a threat to U.S. national security, even if that danger was not imminent.

Following this doctrine, President Bush declared in January 2002 that Iraq was part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iran and North Korea. Although the United States had supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war against Iran in the 1980s, Bush considered the Iraqi dictator to be in the same terrorist camp with Osama bin Laden. Little had changed in Iraq since the 1980s, but President Bush sought to complete the job that his father had started and then retreated from in the 1991 Gulf War—removing Hussein from power. The Iraqi leader was considered too undependable to protect U.S. oil interests in the region. Removing him would also open a path to overthrowing the radical Islamic government of neighboring Iran, which had embarrassed the United States in 1979 and remained its sworn enemy (see chapter 28).

Over the next two years, Bush convinced Congress and a majority of the American people that Iraq presented an immediate danger to the security of the United States in its effort to fight global terrorism. He did so by falsely connecting Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorists. The president also accused Iraq of being well along the way to building and stockpiling “weapons of mass destruction.” Even after UN inspectors examined alleged nuclear and chemical weapons facilities in Iraq and found nothing harmful, the Bush administration remained adamant. Further, the government manipulated questionable intelligence information to defend its claims. In a speech to the United Nations based on dubious and inaccurate information, Secretary of State Powell charged that intelligence services had gathered direct evidence that Iraq was working on a nuclear device.

Challenging the Bush administration’s assumptions and allegations about Iraq, antiwar critics staged mass demonstrations in major cities throughout the country, but with little success. Most Americans gave the president the benefit of the doubt. At the very least, they agreed with Bush that Saddam Hussein was “evil” and that his removal was justified. Thus in March 2003, after a congressional vote of approval, U.S. military aircraft unleashed massive bombing attacks on Baghdad as part of the Bush-Rumsfeld strategy of “shock and awe.” Unlike the 1991 Gulf War, in which the first President Bush had responded to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and led a broad coalition of nations, including Arab countries (see chapter 28), the United States did not wait for any overt act of aggression and created merely a nominal alliance of nations, with only Great Britain supplying significant combat troops. Nevertheless, within weeks Hussein went into hiding, prompting Bush to declare that “major combat operations” had ended in Iraq.

This triumphant declaration proved premature, although Hussein was captured several months later. Despite the presence of 130,000 U.S. and 30,000 British troops, the war dragged on. More American soldiers (more than 4,000) died after the president proclaimed victory than had died during the invasion. The perception of the United States as an occupying power destabilized Iraq, leading to a civil war between the country’s Shi’ite Muslim majority, which had been persecuted under Saddam Hussein, and its Sunni minority, which Hussein represented. In the northern part of the nation, the Kurdish majority, another group brutalized by Hussein, also battled Sunnis. Moreover, al-Qaeda forces, which previously had been absent from the country, joined the fray.

The U.S. occupation and attempts at nation building, something that Bush during the 2000 campaign vowed he would not support, caused serious problems. American soldiers staffing jails containing Iraqi war prisoners, such as Abu Ghraib, were caught in photographs abusing their captives. The reconstituted Iraqi army and police lacked experience and harbored rebels within their ranks. Absent a military draft, Bush could not put sufficient active-duty troops into Iraq without exhausting them through extended tours of duty. In 2004 the military began relying on National Guard units to meet troop requirements, and they eventually constituted about 40 percent of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq. To make up for staffing shortages, the Pentagon outsourced to private companies jobs that would normally be performed by military personnel. American companies profited immensely from construction projects; from supplying troops with housing, meals, and uniforms; and from providing security for high-ranking military and diplomatic personnel. The Defense Department awarded contracts without competitive bidding to companies such as Halliburton, which had close ties to Vice President Cheney.

Amid a protracted war in Iraq, President Bush won reelection in 2004 by promising to finish the course of action he had started in Iraq. Bush argued that to do less would encourage terrorists, subvert burgeoning democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and dishonor the troops who had been killed and wounded. Although the Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, criticized Bush’s handling of Iraq, Bush eked out a victory; however, this time, unlike four years before, the president won a majority of the popular vote (50.7 percent).

Bush’s Second Term

Bush won reelection, but over the next four years his credibility suffered. Several issues—the continued presence of sectarian violence in Iraq, the lack of progress in training Iraqi troops and police to safeguard civilians, the mounting death tolls, and the failure of the U.S.- supported Iraqi government to work out a political solution to the country’s problems— turned the majority of Americans against the war. Even when in 2007 the president ordered an increase of 30,000 troops, known as “the surge,” which succeeded in reducing mayhem in Baghdad and its vicinity, many Americans had had enough. In 2008 polls showed that 54 percent of Americans considered the invasion of Iraq a mistake, and 49 percent wanted U.S. troops to return home (compared with 47 percent who opposed withdrawal).

However, the president seemed impervious to criticism. The Bush administration continued to enforce the Patriot Act with little concern for the protection of privacy and civil liberties, and it justified its actions on the belief that in a time of war the president had few limits on his power. Bush also refused to back down from the policy of incarcerating suspected al-Qaeda rebels in the U.S. military base in Guantanamo, Cuba. The facility housed more than six hundred men classified as “enemy combatants,” who were subject to extreme interrogation and were deprived of legal counsel. This policy changed somewhat when the Supreme Court, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), ruled that the military tribunals established by the president to prosecute Guantanamo prisoners were unconstitutional. Shortly after, Congress passed legislation providing a small measure of protection for the four hundred prisoners who remained in Guantanamo.

As Bush’s handling of the Iraq War generated rising disapproval, his management of a major natural disaster further diminished his popularity. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf coast states of Louisiana and Mississippi. This powerful storm devastated New Orleans, a city with a population of nearly 500,000, a majority of whom were African American. A thirty-foot flood surge caused poorly maintained levees to break, placing large areas of the city underwater. Despite the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from New Orleans before the hurricane struck, approximately 50,000 residents remained trapped by the flood. Not only did local and state officials respond slowly and ineptly, but so, too, did the federal government in providing assistance to those trapped in the city.

In the days after the storm hit, chaos reigned in New Orleans. Evacuees were housed in the Superdome football stadium and a municipal auditorium without adequate food, water, and sanitary conditions, and the scenes of despair were broadcast on national television. The flooding killed at least 1,800 residents of the Gulf coast, New Orleans’s population dropped by around 130,000 residents, and critics blamed the president for his lack of leadership and slow response to the disaster. Some argued that just as Bush had failed to manage the war in Iraq, he also lacked the ability to handle the Katrina catastrophe. Overall, Hurricane Katrina was just as much a human-made disaster as a natural one.

Displeased with the Bush administration, voters elected a Democratic majority to the House and Senate in 2006, yet little changed. American troops remained in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mobilization for the war on terror had become a permanent part of life in the United States, much like the growth of the national security state during the Cold War (see chapter 24). However, not all Americans experienced the war equally. With military enlistments at low levels, the men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were disproportionately poor and from minority communities. At the same time, Osama bin Laden remained alive and in hiding, and al-Qaeda had regrouped in Pakistan and Yemen. The Bush administration did little to address the perennial problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations, one of the chief elements that fueled terrorism and Islamic radicalism. Making the situation even more combustible, in 2006 Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement), which the United States considered an anti-Semitic, terrorist organization, won Palestinian parliamentary elections and posed a new threat to peace in the Middle East.

With turmoil continuing in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, the threat of nuclear proliferation grew. Iraq did not have nuclear weapons, but Iran sought to develop nuclear capabilities. Iranian leaders claimed that they wanted nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, but the Bush administration believed that Iran’s real purpose was to build nuclear devices to attack Israel and establish its supremacy in the region. The election in 2005 of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an avowed enemy of Israel, as president of Iran reinforced Bush’s fears. Pakistan, a country that already had nuclear weapons, also proved troublesome. Although an ally of the United States, Pakistan was largely ineffective in removing al-Qaeda and Taliban forces from their bases along the country’s border with Afghanistan. Equally disturbing, a high-ranking nuclear scientist in Pakistan had previously sold information to North Korea, one of the states in Bush’s “axis of evil.” North Korea, a totalitarian nation and one of the few remaining Communist dictatorships left from the Cold War era, conducted underground nuclear tests in 2006.


• How did President Bush put compassionate conservatism into action?

• How did the war on terror prompt U.S. leaders to rethink America's position in the world?

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