|With the wife and kids away for the past couple of weeks, I had the opportunity to catch up on some casual reading. You know the sort: books bought over the years, but only ever half-read; books bought and not read at all; books bought, then promptly forgotten altogether. Anyway, here was my big chance.
Needless to say, it was a chance I more or less squandered. I did, however, pick up and actually finish Nick Hornbys Polysyllabic Spree (2004), a collection of essays on among other things the habit of acquiring more books than its possible to read. The author of such books as High Fidelity and Fever Pitch, Hornby could be relied on (so I thought) for the occasional amusing insight on human folly and failings.
And sure enough, tucked away in his brief review of Bob Woodwards Bush at War (2002), I came across a story from the night of 9/11 that I hadnt heard before. Apparently, just after 11 oclock that night, President George W. Bush was woken up by secret service agents whod received a report that the White House itself might be under attack. "Woken up!" exclaims Hornby in amazement. "He didnt work late that night? See, if that had been me, I would have been up until about six, drinking and smoking and watching TV."
Sharing Hornbys incredulity at this picture of a slumbering president, I thought Id better check his source for myself. And sure enough, there on page 36 of Bush at War, Woodward describes the incident in full. But what Hornby hadnt mentioned is that Woodward also tells how, earlier that evening at 9:30, Bush had chaired a gathering of his principal national security advisors to discuss the days events. In other words, assuming that this meeting lasted no more than 30 minutes, Bush still managed on possibly the most momentous day in American history to get undressed, pop into bed and actually fall asleep all within an hour!
Fast forward five years, to the approaching fifth anniversary of 9/11. On the morning after reading Woodwards tale of Bushs narcolepsy, I awoke to the news that a far greater terrorist attack this time involving not four planes but twelve, and possibly more had been uncovered and prevented. We had, the papers blared, narrowly escaped "the Big One."
In terms of duration, the American-led "war on terror" has already outlasted World War One (4 years, 3 months) and is fast closing in on World War Twos record (5 years, 9 months). And yet this latest incident suggests that its end or even the beginning of its end, to paraphrase Churchill is nowhere in sight. Of course, the good news is that the planned attack was discovered, thanks in part to intelligence provided by Pakistan and to co-operation between the U.S. and British security forces. The ability to detect, monitor and prevent such schemes might be the best we can hope for. Perhaps this is what "winning the war on terror" will look like.
Well, maybe. But surely the ability to inflict civilian casualties even on the "unimaginable scale" described by one senior British police officer last week is only the means to a greater end as far as terrorists are concerned. Their ultimate aim is twofold: first, to instill an abiding sense of fear among the targeted nations (or nations) general public; and second, thereby to compel them to alter established habits, values and assumptions as they adjust their lives to the new reality.
By that measure, immediate reactions to last weeks news suggest that, five years on from 9/11, the West may actually be losing the war on terror.
Consider, for example, a story in last Saturdays Globe and Mail. "Chained at check-in?" ran the headline, under which the writer warned readers that they should expect and accept a vastly different culture of flying to that which theyd grown up with.
For example, its possible that carry-on luggage will soon be a thing of the past. New security checks will include biological data such as fingerprints, eyes and facial features. Check-in times will increase, to as much as 24 hours for passengers with luggage to process. A complete ban on electronic gadgets such as laptops, iPods and BlackBerrys is likely, and following Englands lead last week even books and other in-flight reading material may eventually join the list of prohibited items. If this is winning the war on terror, then its a funny kind of victory.
Still, this war is a mere pup compared to Americas long-term struggle to effect a "regime change" in Cuba, a fight that began almost as soon as Fidel Castro secured power during the Communist revolution of 1959. Recent news out of Havana suggests that this war, too, might be entering a new phase.
At the end of July, President Castro announced that he would be relinquishing power if only temporarily to his brother Raul, as he prepared to undergo intestinal surgery shortly before his 80th birthday last Sunday. The operation went ahead, and in a printed statement even Castro conceded his recovery might take a long time. "I ask you all to be optimistic," he wrote, "and at the same time be ready to face any adverse news."
However, it would be hasty to suggest that Castro is necessarily near the end of his 47-year rule. After all, he has survived numerous efforts to depose him notably the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, as well as more than 600 assassination attempts by the CIA and the impact of a sustained economic embargo by successive US administrations. Unlike most other communist leaders, Castro also managed to survive the end of the Cold War even with the consequent loss of financial aid from the former Soviet Union by building new alliances with Caribbean partners and members of the European Union.
Indeed, Castro has managed to outlast no fewer than nine U.S. presidents, and if he does recover hes likely to add an outgoing George W. Bush to that list. Its hard to explain such sustained and obviously ineffectual American opposition. Not since the 1962 missile crisis has Cuba posed a realistic military threat; the Cold War and its division of the world into two ideological camps is now long over; and the U.S. has never let its own ideology such as anti-communism get in the way of advantageous trade deals, as Nixons visit to China in 1972 made clear.
All the same, Castros rule must eventually come to an end, one way or another. Right now, the prevailing assumption is that when it does the U.S. will lift its embargo and allow both trade and investment with Cuba once more. Many of the million or so Cuban Americans currently living in Florida may choose to return to their native island.
Just what the 11 million Cubans whose lives, for almost 50 years, have been indelibly shaped by Castros policies and programs will make of all this remains to be seen. Somehow, though, I dont think President Bush will be losing much sleep over this problem either.