Echoes of 9/11: Anti-politics and Politics from Bush to Obama

On November 12, 2001, I received a request from the German journal Kommune to send for their next issue, which was already in press, some reflections on the events of 9/11 and their implications for the future. The invitation was welcome; after all, what can an intellectual do in the face of such total destruction but try to construct some sense by using his most familiar tool, the word? As they had a French translator at the ready, I wrote my essay in that language and sent it as well to the journal Esprit, of whose editorial board I am a member. The titles of the two published versions of my essay are telling. The German version posed the question “Krieg oder Politik?” (War or politics?), while the French title was more imperative: “Quand l’Amérique rejoint tragiquement le monde” (When America tragically rejoins the world). Reflecting a decade later, I think that both remain apt.1

With regard to the question of war or politics, the Bush government clearly chose the first, and the easiest, option by declaring a “War on Terror” that was, strictly speaking, either unwinnable, since the acts of terror had to have been already committed, or infinite, since anyone could be, or become, or be accused of being a terrorist. But the administration never asked itself what victory might mean; nor did it consider the costs, monetary or moral, of its reaction to 9/11.

The difficulty was evident in Bush’s repeated use of the passive construction. For example, on September 20, 2001, he declared, “War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. . . . This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others; it will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.”2 The passive victim of treachery would write the script for the restoration of its own healthy vigor. This warrior rhetoric sufficed for Bush to win reelection in 2004, but by 2008 his popularity had sunk so low that John McCain never once asked him to take part in his doomed campaign. The War on Terror—the easiest, because the least complicated, solution—was perhaps morally satisfying, but its political shelf life was short, however effective or ineffective its realization.

The victorious campaign of Barack Obama in 2008 seemed to represent the other pole, the political path, suggested by the German title. Like many others, I thought so and tried to show why and how it did so in many essays in Kommune and Esprit.[3.  I’ll not try to list those articles here; they are available on my website, http://www.dickhoward.com/. I have also regularly published op-eds in the daily paper Ouest-France. While the first of these, published December 28, 2006, carried the optimistic title “Une étoile nouvelle sur l’horizon américain” (A new star on the American horizon), the title of the most recent, published on August 15, 2011, worried about “Ce que le president a oublié” (What the president forgot)—namely, the creation of a coherent political narrative.] As Obama’s 2012 campaign begins to take form, I ask myself whether I was guilty of taking my wishes for reality, which I will address in a moment. But I want first to try to clarify the option not taken in the immediate wake of 9/11, namely, the need to make political sense out of that singular, terrible day—to take the difficult path of politics rather than the easy and anti-political option for war.3

To begin to define that political path, let me translate here the first paragraph of my 2001 essay:

Where were you on November 22, 1963? Even the young remember that date because the assassination of John F. Kennedy on that day began a new political age for a suddenly sobered America. The same question will be posed in a more painful manner for September 11, 2001. However, if the murder of John F. Kennedy was followed by a blind engagement in Vietnam that finally alienated civil society, that same society was also engaged in a “War against Poverty” that was a culmination of the battle for civil rights. Which will it be this time, when we hear of a “war” against a non-identified enemy and society seems to forget itself in a comprehensible patriotic spirit that risks either dissipating in the long term or exploding into a demand for an immediate and terrible revenge?

The civil rights movement to which I referred was political insofar as it created the context in which the existence of economic inequality became socially intolerable. This context was brought to the foreground by the assassination of Kennedy, and LBJ had the political judgment needed to understand the new possibilities before he succumbed to the “logic” of the domino theory that seemed to make war in Vietnam an overriding but unwinnable imperative. What could be the political equivalent to the civil rights movement in the wake of 9/11?

A provisional answer to the need to invent a new politics was suggested by the French title of my essay. It seemed 9/11 could be understood as a sort of wake-up call. Although Bush père had talked about a “New World Order” after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, he treated the military strength of the hegemonic American hyper-power as its ordering force.4 This encouraged an attitude among the citizenry that was almost autistic, in the sense that it reflected an inability to take into account the point of view, and the interests, of others. During the Clinton years there was some change, but the justification for the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo was still paradoxical; it combined an immediate empathy for the other whose life was threatened with defense of human rights as a political rather than a moral obligation. That is why there never was a “Clinton Doctrine,” nor could there have been one, despite Madeleine Albright’s efforts.

September 11, 2001, was a wake-up call; it said that the United States is part of the world and that the world is a complicated, messy place from which violence and hatred—and all those other “passions” that had preoccupied eighteenth-century philosophers—cannot be eliminated once and for all, as Bush fils put it, “at an hour of our choosing.” This was the “tragic” aspect of America’s reentry into the world. It is for precisely that reason that politics is necessary. The goal of political action is not to put an end to evil (and thus to history) once and for all; it is to learn to live critically in the world and with an ongoing history, which no single power can control. If the “world” came knocking at America’s door on 9/11, saying that even a hyper-power cannot ignore the vicissitudes that Machiavelli called fortuna, then Americans had to learn how to welcome that unexpected and often unwanted guest who can be neither ignored nor eliminated. That was the challenge, as I saw it, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Where do things stand today? Have Americans learned anything during the decade that followed the shock? Should the United States be congratulated for the election of Barack Obama, who promised a new politics built on the “audacity of hope,” expressed by the rallying chant of “yes we can”? That’s what the Nobel Committee seemed to think in awarding him its Peace Prize in 2009. Or was his election the expression of a climate created by Americans’ recognition that they are indeed part of the world and that they cannot stand simply on a war footing against it? That’s what Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009 seemed to promise.5 Does this recognition of the need to take into account the standpoints of others carry with it the seeds of a revivification of our domestic democracy? It is unfortunately necessary to answer in the negative and to fear that the same negative applies to the other questions as well.

American democracy today is divided by a conflict of legitimacies. Barack Obama was elected to a four-year term of office, which he took as a mandate to “change the way Washington works.”6 To realize this goal, he will need to lead a political process that depends on more than enthusiastically chanting crowds. The Republican opposition first contested the legitimacy of Obama’s mandate, and then, as the economy went from bad to worse despite the administration’s efforts, their right wing mobilized in the midterm elections to gain stunning victories (at all levels of government). This permitted the Republican opposition to claim that they had a mandate that trumped the legitimacy of the president, whom they are determined to dethrone in 2012. The result has been sharp conflict, most recently over the raising of the debt ceiling, and the promise of stalemate, which was the justification for Standard & Poors’ lowering of the US credit rating.7

Obama seems to have gotten the worse of this recent conflict. His way of negotiating aims at compromise that is “liberal” in that classic sense defined by the poet Robert Frost as someone who is so altruistic that he refuses to defend his own arguments. As a result, the president is losing the support of the left wing of his party and that of the youthful enthusiasts whose activism was essential to his victory. Although Mr. Obama seems to think that he still has time to reverse the tide, he faces a classic political dilemma most sharply depicted by the sociologist Max Weber nearly a century ago in “Politics as a Vocation”—the political realm is no place for saints.

The president and his staff seem never to tire of claiming that Obama is “the only adult in the room” of squabbling, stubborn, and self-interested politicians who populate that “Washington” that he wants to change. The opposition Republicans, of course, claim to be acting as men of conviction for whom compromise would amount to a betrayal of the principles that they share with their constituents. This is an example of what Weber called a “politics of conviction.” When Barack Obama proposes to compromise with the opposition, putting himself from the outset in a weak negotiating position, he illustrates what Weber defined as a “politics of responsibility.” The president’s expectation is that it will become evident that his politics of responsibility works for the good of the public as a whole, that is to say, in all its diversity, whereas the Republicans’ politics of conviction is based on private commitments to particular moral beliefs that are not necessarily shared by all citizens. In a pluralistic democracy, the claim to express universal ethical values has to take into account the fact that others too have values for which they also claim universal validity. In this sense, the political path proposed by Barack Obama can be said to build from the experience of 9/11 and the failure of the “war” against terrorism.

Unfortunately, if this is the political logic that underlies Barack Obama’s choices, he has forgotten the paradoxical conclusions of Weber’s political sociology. The politics of responsibility still has to answer two questions: Responsible to whom? Responsible for what? To answer these questions, the president would have to give up his quest for reasonable compromise; he would have to choose sides. Because he has not done that, his political proposals have been unfocused; they lack long-range narrative coherence, appearing to be simply improvisations of the moment.

This is an unexpected situation for those who placed their hopes in a presidential candidate whose first claims to a public role were articulated in his writing. Could it be that his identification of his own biography with the history of the United States limits his ability to recognize and to combat the divisions that—as Machiavelli said of Rome—have been the source of its continual growth and transformation? Could it be that, implicitly, Obama does not recognize that politics cannot overcome division and eliminate violence and injustice; it can only make possible the search—even the combat, but not a “war”—for peace and justice? If that is the case, then he too will not have heard the echoes of 9/11 that call for a renewal of the political.


Dick Howard is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Stony Brook University. His most recent books are The Primacy of the Political: A History of Political Thought from the Greeks to the French and American Revolutions (Columbia University Press 2010) and Aux origines de la pensée politique américaine (Hachette Pluriel 2008). He does a weekly commentary on US politics for Radio Canada and a monthly column on New York cultural life for Esprit. His political commentaries can be found on his website, http://www.dickhoward.com/.

  1. Dick Howard, “Krieg oder Politik?” Kommune 19, October 2001, 6–9; and “Quand l’Amérique rejoint tragiquement le monde,” Esprit, October 2001, 8–14. I don’t recall which title was mine and am unable to find the original manuscript that perished with an old hard drive. (There is no English translation.)
  2. eMediaMillWorks, “Text: Bush Remarks at Prayer Service,” Washington Post, September 14, 2001, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushtext_091401.html.
  3. In a book that I wrote during the years following 9/11, I try to show that the opposition between the political and anti-politics has been a constant in the history of political thought since the Greeks. See Dick Howard, The Primacy of the Political: A History of Political Thought from the Greeks to the French and American Revolutions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
  4. It is worth recalling that two years before the Berlin Wall fell and communism disappeared as a force or a threat, the historian Paul Kennedy published The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, setting off a passionate discussion of the question of America’s coming “decline.” Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987).
  5. “Text: Obama’s Speech in Cairo,” New York Times, June 4, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/04/us/politics/04obama.text.html.
  6. “Remarks of President Barack Obama, Weekly Address, February 28th, 2009, Washington, DC,” White House Blog, http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/09/02/28/Keeping-Promises/.
  7. This conflict of legitimacies can also be seen as the opposition of one politics that looks toward the future for its justification to another politics that is oriented toward the restoration of the past. In the case of some Republicans, that past lies prior to the New Deal; for still others—such as Texas governor Rick Perry—it lies back in the time before the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments (which introduced the income tax and the direct election of senators).