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Where is America?…

The United States has lost its unique position in the world and needs its young president to restore trust and self-confidence. Arlington Cemetery: the rising death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq, an ailing economy and an unpopular presidency have weakened many Americans faith in their country.

Time stands still for the dead at Arlington Cemetery, but history marches on. In Section 60, the dead of Afghanistan and Iraq are buried each week. The names of the latest to be interred are still being carved into marble headstones.

For now, a “temporary grave marker” of white card marks the final resting places. Over the course of the coming months and years, the sodden earth in front of Dively, Pucino and Frazier will be filled with more young Americans. They will join the 464 in Arlington who have been killed in the current Iraq conflict and the 116 others in the cemetery who met their end in Afghanistan – about a tenth of the total American dead.

President Barack Obama visited Section 60 last month, a fortnight before he decided to send 30,000 more troops to fight in what has now become his war.

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote of the “end of history” being reached with the triumph of liberal democracy. That year, however, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan sowed the seeds of al-Qaeda and in the next, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait set the stage for the fateful invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It was in 1941 that the magazine publisher Henry Luce declared the 100 years that ended the last millennium – and provided most of the 330,000 occupants of Arlington Cemetery – to be “the American Century”.

In 1999, the Washington columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote that the United States was as powerful as imperial Rome and that the world appeared to be on the cusp of a “Second American Century”.

Considering the attacks of September 11, 2001, the continuing Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the biggest global financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s and the economic rise of China, that now seems like hubris.

For most Americans, the Aughts – as a 1999 poll in USA Today dubbed the first decade of the 21st century – began with the 9/11 attacks. More than 60 of those killed that day at the Pentagon, which is visible from the cemetery, are buried in Arlington.

The Aughts ended, perhaps, on November 4, 2008, when Mr Obama was elected to be the country’s first black president, making it a short decade – the Bush decade – of only seven or eight years.

But the thwarted al-Qaeda terrorist attack on Christmas Day aboard a Northwest Airlines Airbus 330 from Amsterdam to Detroit was a reminder that Osama bin Laden and his followers did not stop when Mr Bush left office. And the alarming failure of the American intelligence agencies to “connect the dots” on 12/25 just as they failed to do on 9/11 illustrated that, in some senses, little had changed in eight years.

In seeking to contrast himself with his predecessor at every turn, Mr Obama has certainly tried to open a new page of American history. He apologised to Europe, stating in Strasbourg that “America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive”. He told the Muslim world that America has “not been perfect” and that his election would “restore” the “respect and partnership” that once existed.

Perhaps most strikingly of all, he reduced the notion of “American exceptionalism”, the term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville to denote the special position in the world of the US by dint of its history and values, to mere patriotism. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he said, in an unfortunate comparison with two countries that lost their empires.

This has been music to much of the world’s ears. From Oslo to Damascus and Beijing to Caracas, there has been celebration at the end of what Hubert Védrine, then French foreign minister, described in 1998 as America’s “hyper-power” status. The unipolar world, it seems, ended with the Aughts.

Certainly, the past decade has culminated in what is now a crisis of American confidence. Gallup found that just 25 per cent of Americans are now happy with the way things are going for their country, compared with 69 per cent a decade ago.

Capitalism, having been shaken by the collapse of Enron, appears to be foundering after last autumn’s bank crisis, triggered by the obscure sorcery of credit default swaps and the outright fraud of Ponzi schemes masterminded by the likes of Bernie Madoff.

Trust in government was severely eroded by the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. Torture at Abu Ghraib and the Guantanamo Bay prison fuelled a sense felt by many that America had lost its moral bearings. The aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005, in which bloated corpses were left for days in the waters that engulfed New Orleans, wounded the American sense of self.

Although Mr Bush gave himself a shot at redemption by stabilising Iraq with the 2007 surge, much of America is wondering whether Afghanistan will become Mr Obama’s Vietnam – the war that still haunts the country’s imagination.

The hope engendered by Mr Obama’s election has given way to intense fretfulness. Despite government spending soaring, unemployment recently reached a 26-year high of over 10 per cent.

It appears that Mr Obama will get his historic healthcare reform Bill – meaning 30 million more Americans will be insured – but the measure was rammed through the Senate on a razor-thin party-line vote and most believe the country cannot afford it and that it will not work.

Many Americans have already had enough. According to Gallup, just 47 per cent of Americans approve of Mr Obama, a stunning drop of nearly 20 points since his inauguration, making him the least popular president at the end of a first term since polling began. The pollster Frank Luntz found that 72 per cent of Americans felt the same as Howard Beale, the barking-mad anchorman of the 1976 film Network, who declared: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.”

This accounts for the rise of the conservative anti-government Tea Party movement, which has led to protests against big government throughout 2009, and to the popularity of Glenn Beck, the commentator whose weeping
rants on Fox News have sent his ratings skyrocketing to more than three million.

Mr Obama’s dramatic address in Cairo and use of his full name of Barack Hussein Obama cut no ice with Major Nidal Hasan, a US Army psychologist and radical Islamist who slaughtered 13 at the Fort Hood base in Texas last month.

Two of Hasan’s victims are among the newly buried in Arlington, which is open to all serving and retired service members on their deaths, though the families of most opt for local cemeteries.

Although Mr Obama was elected largely on the basis of giving some magnificent speeches and not being Mr Bush – and won a Nobel Peace Prize to boot – he has already found that this is not nearly enough to succeed as president.

Thus far, his humble overtures to engage with Iran and attempted rapprochement with Russia have yielded little or no result. The promise to close Guantanamo within one year will be broken – and maybe not achieved within two.

Mr Obama was humiliated at the Copenhagen climate change summit, when Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, sent in a mid-level official to deal with the United States president and blocked any meaningful deal being achieved. The unspoken message was that this was China’s century, not America’s.

But the demise of America in the Aughts is based as much on wishful thinking in Europe and elsewhere as it is on facts. And while there is a danger of Mr Obama’s apparent belief that America is no longer the world’s sole superpower becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, the States is much more than its president, be it a Bush or an Obama.

Although the anger at the summer “town hall” meetings on healthcare was widely condemned as illustrating a loss of national civility, in fact they demonstrated a passion and a fervent desire to be involved that were signs of a healthy body politic.

Americans want politicians to be accountable for what they say, even if they have won Nobel prizes for their eloquence. They need their trust in government to be restored. During this economic crisis, they want a hand up but not a hand-out.

Despite all the trials of the decade and the potent – and continuing – threat posed by radical Islam to liberal democracy, Americans combine resilience, resourcefulness, hard work and patriotism in a way that is unique.

This year, the US military met its recruiting goals for the first time since the draft ended in 1973. The economic downturn undoubtedly played a part in that. It also indicated, however, that despite the very real possibility that they might end up in Arlington Cemetery’s Section 60, there is no shortage of idealistic young Americans who believe that their country is worth fighting for and will eventually prevail.

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