Alone and US criticism
Both the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq faced strong criticism in other countries as well as in the United States itself. Special protests created the will to ignore the UN and breach of international law, international conventions and to some extent the United States own constitution.
Prior to the attack on Iraq in 2003, many of the US allies called for stronger restraint and asked for an attack only with support from the UN Security Council. The Bush administration argued against this, claiming that a “pre-emptive strike” could be defended. A notion of a “coalition of the willing” for individual purposes was also in contrast to the earlier emphasis on formal anchoring in international bodies.
Disagreement over the international law basis for the intervention in Iraq clearly had a negative impact on the relationship between the United States and important European allies such as Germany and France. NATO country Turkey refused to allow the United States to carry an armored division through the country and to Iraq’s northern border before the 2003 invasion.
In the war on terror, as a country located in North America listed on businesscarriers, the United States was alerted to transport prisoners from Afghanistan to the Guantánamo Bay military base in Cuba, where suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban members were jailed indefinitely. They were given neither civil trial nor status as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. The United States defended its practice of defining those arrested as “illegal combatants,” ie soldiers who operated outside the laws of war.
Along with documented cases of American torture in interrogations, especially simulated drowning (“waterboarding”), the Guantánamo extramarital prison helped to weaken sympathy for the United States globally and for rising protests in the United States. The criticism was reinforced in 2004 when US media released images of US soldiers abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
Towards the end of the Bush presidency, US relations with the European allies were improving after the Iraq war, but criticism of the Bush administration’s “solitude” remained strong. There were also issues such as international climate cooperation and the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. In Latin America, a community of US-critical regimes emerged, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s President Evo Morales as clear advocates along with Fidel Castro in Cuba.
Unresolved domestic problems
In the 2000s, the US’s growing budget deficit and government debt aroused concern among economists. It was also warned against consumption growth based on housing borrowing. The Iraq war, terrorist struggle and security growth provided a major explanation for the spending side of the budget deficits, but Bush’s comprehensive tax cuts in 2002 also contributed to an immediate revenue decline. Tremors in the economy and the business world also became when top executives in a number of major corporations from 2001 onwards were placed under indictment, after being enriched by accounting fraud and other financial crime.
The economy of the states was also under pressure, with cuts in public services and welfare benefits, and sharply rising tuition fees for higher education among the consequences. At the same time, with the exception of a slowdown in the rate of growth following the terrorist attack in 2001, economic growth in the United States was solid compared to the EU. Measured in the proportion of unemployed, the figures were poorer, with a significant increase from 2001 to 2004.
In 2006, the US population passed 300 million, and Hispanic speakers of Latin American descent passed African-Americans as the largest minority in the population.
Particularly challenging was the issue of the United States of America’s approximately twelve million immigrants without legal residence, but often with long-term participation in low-income work and children in the US school system. A comprehensive compromise on their legal status was close to being successful in Congress in 2007, but was stranded by opposition from both sides. Paralysis came to dominate the case until President Barack Obama in 2014 announced that he would disregard lawmakers and instead implement a series of contentious, liberalizing measures in the form of instructions to his ministries. In 2016, the measures were stopped in the judicial system.
The cultural and moral issues that characterized political polarization under President Bill Clinton remained important; issues such as abortion, stem cell research and the legal position of gays. Referendums on the ban on gay partnerships or marriages received a great deal of attention, not least from conservatives.
At the same time, in 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not allow laws regulating sexual intercourse between consenting adults. The trial was a Texas state ban on intercourse between men. The ruling was the first of several that strengthened the legal position of gays, with the end of equal rights to enter into marriage as a highlight in 2015. Opinion polls indicated widespread support for such a development.
Discouragement and distrust
A number of incidents where the authorities failed to protect citizens contributed to a widespread impression of inadequacy among the country’s leaders. The Florida electoral chaos in 2000 gave a bad impression of the functioning of democracy and the economic scandals of accounting fraud and bankruptcies in 2001–2002 indicated that economic elites had escaped control. In addition, weak or erroneous intelligence appeared to have contributed to untrue allegations prior to the Iraq war and to the failure to avert the September 11 terrorist attack.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf of Mexico in August 2005, federal relief efforts failed and contributed to unnecessary suffering. In addition, the black population was disproportionately hard hit, so that public failure was perceived by many as a form of racism – the claim was that areas of affluent white population would be better served.
The human and financial costs of the war in Iraq became more visible to most people, and in the fall of 2006, the number of fallen soldiers passed the number of fatalities following the September 11 terrorist attacks, while spending continued to pull up budget deficits.
The discouragement created by such issues, illustrated by the rapidly declining popularity of President Bush during these years, may help explain the strong enthusiasm and hopes that a change of power could create positive change in the United States in 2008.