The American boiler

The United States is like a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it, there is no limit to the power it can generate.– Winston Churchill, speaking after the attack on Pearl Harbor

Osama bin Laden thought Churchill was wrong.

As we understand it, Mr. bin Laden launched his attacks a year ago confident that an American response – if there were one – would misfire. He preached that, like the Soviet Union, which collapsed after being chased out of Afghanistan, the US was a sham superpower. Punched in the nose, America would abandon its global role, leaving bin Laden the first man of militant Islam and the power broker of the Middle East.

He and his lieutenants seemed to count on America's inattention. By the time they sent four kamikaze teams toward New York and Washington, the Al Qaeda network had already been warring on the United States for more than 10 years. In some operations, like the debacle in 1993 that forced the Americans to pull out of Somalia after local fighters and ordinary citizens ambushed elite US Army units, the Al Qaeda hand was not detected until much later.

Even in cases like the simultaneous bombing in 1998 of two US embassies, where the network's culpability was revealed fairly quickly, the ineffectual American response – missile attacks – boosted the organization's stature.

Sept. 11 finally lit the boiler. Americans were ready to go to war but not sure how to mobilize for this new kind of fight.

A year later it is still not clear that we have learned how to connect the gigantic American boiler to a campaign that leads, if not to a traditional victory, then at least to a state where we are reasonably safe and no longer on an emergency war footing. Sadly, one might take the rather dour view that instead of preventing future violence, our strengths, misdeployed, may be making the problem worse. How?

Military power. America's biggest card, produced some deceptively quick results in Afghanistan. But operations are now bogged down in a hunt for bin Laden and other terrorists scattered across the mountain wilds. Focused only on this will-o'-the-wisp mission, American commanders have refused to help shelter Afghan communities from warlords and bandits, stalling local rebuilding efforts and feeding opposition to the US presence. Boiler check: Awesome as it is, US military power may not have much to contribute to the counterterrorism war.

Diplomacy is another strong suit. America's is the deft hand that led the World War II alliance, held the NATO partnership together, and orchestrated an unusual coalition to liberate Kuwait. Although only global teamwork can defeat global terrorism, American policies this past year created dissent and division among even our closest friends. Boiler check: US diplomats are doing damage control, not leading.

America's global economy. Violence flourishes amid poverty and hopelessness. Those roots must be pulled up. Much of the pulling can be done by the hugely productive American economy. But US economic policies went the other way last year. New trade barriers and higher oil prices – pushed up by incessant talk of war against Iraq – damaged some of the economies most vulnerable to terrorist-incited chaos. And America's corporate scandals soiled our leadership credentials. Boiler check: America's economic might is still AWOL from the war on terrorism.

Freedom. Americans are on view everywhere in this wired world. Counterbalancing the river of trash and violence we export as "entertainment" – an export that feeds the terrorists' anti-American preaching – is the daily scene of our open, endlessly argumentative democracy.

For two centuries America's careful protection of individual freedoms showed the oppressed of the world that the ultimate guarantee of personal security is a just society, not a gun. Now our news exports a portrait of secrecy, arbitrary arrest, and official mendacity. Boiler check: The first year of the US campaign against terrorists may be giving more encouragement to demagogues than democrats.

What can individuals do? Perhaps Americans can make Sept. 11 a national day of rethinking how we connect ourselves to the world to prevent a repeat episode. We have dead to mourn and heroes to admire. We also have work to do.

Where do we stand today in this global contest of civility against violence? The jury is still out. Bin Laden was counting on us to be self-centered and self-defeating when under sustained attack. The world is still counting on us to react as Churchill predicted, with generosity and teamwork. Let's prove bin Laden wrong and Churchill right.

• Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, writes about contemporary war and strategies for peacebuilding.

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