The mood in the United States is sour. Although President Jimmy Carter never used the term, a “malaise” is infecting the country.
Unemployment, poverty, even obesity, and other measures of discontent are running at or near record levels. Abroad, conditions look equally grim.
The Arab Spring, a tragic misnomer, is by no means a road to peace, prosperity and democracy. Coalition forces will be out of Iraq by New Year’s with few guarantees that Iraq will be less violent and more stable after nearly a decade of conflict.
While NATO says the security situation in Afghanistan is moving in a positive direction, governance and stability, the ultimate guarantors of a more stable country remain fragile at best. And last weekend’s attack that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers well inside the Pakistani border will inflame and not dampen the already tense relations between Islamabad and Washington.
The euro crisis is far from resolved and the behavior of stock markets and bourses indicates that solutions aren’t at hand to deal with the massive debt and economic issues plaguing not merely Europe but the global financial and economic systems as well. That the U.S. Congress and its so-called supercommittee of 12 couldn’t reach agreement on finding a way out of America’s financial and budgetary woes compounds the angst and fear sweeping global markets.
No wonder Americans are entering a winter of discontent.
A super majority says the country is headed in the wrong direction and no longer sees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq worth the costs. An equal percentage sees the economy worsening and expectations for a better life diminishing. President Barack Obama’s ratings are low and Congress’s is in single digits in terms of its failure to perform. Most Americans have been turned off by the seemingly endless series of Republican debates and the absence of an acceptable candidate emerging from the pack.
Cynically, Americans are feeling sorry for themselves and, in their minds, with good reasons. The American dream has become a nightmare for many and unobtainable for most. Trust in institutions and government — with lawyers, investment bankers and politicians taking the greatest heat — is at abysmal levels. And part of this agonizing period is public understanding that while real solutions exist, the political process is incapable of taking or implementing any of them.
My late and great mother-in-law had a simple answer to these matters. Shortly before she left his world for a better place, she was visiting her then newly married daughter in Washington some 35 years ago. We were living well above our station and had several fancy dinner parties for her.
It was 1976 and American was in a blue funk. A president had been forced to resign in face of impeachment or worse. Vietnam was an ignominious defeat, America’s first, with the image of the last helicopter fleeing the U.S. Embassy in Saigon visibly etched in the psyches of many of us who fought there.
The military was held in contempt, government was disrespected and the economy was in tatters, still suffering from the Arab oil embargo of late 1973 in the wake of the Yom Kippur War that October.
Indeed, as a precursor of things to come, Hanafi Muslims had occupied the B’nai B’rith building in Washington and killed a number of innocent civilians, mostly Jews, in one of the first acts of Islamic terror to strike America.
Over dinner, the conversation turned to these dismal matters and general pessimism enshrouding the nation. My mother-in-law, married to a British law lord, took great exception to the bleak proceedings. Reminding us of the Great Depression in England and the sacrifices Britons made during World War II, this diminutive lady turned to an admiral or senator seated next to her with formidable intellect and spunk saying, “You Americans must simply buck up!”
When we consider what our forbearers endured from the first colonists who faced pestilence, famine, drought and many other privations including hostile American Indians not anxious to have their lands confiscated by foreign invaders, are we so worse off today? The American Revolution and Civil War were times of real crisis as were the Great Depression and Pearl Harbor.
America was indeed lucky that for some five decades after World War II, the country enjoyed the advantages and benefits of its unprecedented economic and military superpower status. The American dream was real and was obtainable.
Today, that legacy no longer exists. In blunt terms, Americans have spent or wasted the inheritance from prior generations.
Denial is often the first response to reports of danger. And many of us are in denial in believing that our situation is more desperate or dangerous than in any time in our history. My mother-in-law had it correct — Buck up America!
Harlan Ullman is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This article was syndicated by UPI.