WASHINGTON -- If you look over two major historical American events commemorated this week, and then put them together with some of the depressing events occurring across the globe, you might well get the idea that the world is "going to hell in a handbasket" (one of my beloved mother's favorite sayings).
This week marks the 150th anniversary of the opening shots of the Civil War, when the Confederates bombed the Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and started a four-year conflagration that ended with more than 600,000 dead.
This week also marks the 50th anniversary of the American invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs, on April 17, 1961, an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Without the air cover promised by the new American president, John F. Kennedy, the invasion was a deadly fiasco, with 200 anti-Castro soldiers killed and 1,197 captured. Almost all of the latter were dramatically exchanged by Castro for food and medicine, as though there were no human quotient in it.
Everywhere you look in the world today, there still seem to be wars, revolutions and civil disruption. Is this really a new season we face, or merely a winter, disguised as spring, that goes on interminably?
Well, this will surely get me into trouble with the eternal pessimists in our midst, but let me argue that we ought to look hard at the changes around us -- and we might just come up with some optimism and hope.
First, take the "Arab awakenings" across the Middle East. They have their dangers, yes, but we have for years put down the Arabs because they would not arise and become modern men and women. Now they are trying, really trying. It might well take years, and many turnarounds, but every revolution has had its point-counterpoint rhythm. Remember the French Revolution? It took two generations and two Napoleons (and I don't mean brandy).
Second, in these same awakenings, the United States has not done badly this time at all. Its training of and military influence over the Egyptian and Tunisian armies have been key in what so far are relatively peaceful revolutions. In Libya, President Obama, I think wisely, chose to encourage NATO prominence over the long run, to accept graciously the suddenly enlivened French military in the prime role and to keep America in the periphery.
When one looks back to only the '90s in Bosnia, when the French and the other European "peacekeepers" were deployed, but under neutralist generals and against enemies (the Serbs) they could not identify, they were not even allowed to defend themselves. They simply became targets. It is enormously relieving that this time the Europeans have been able to define who is the enemy (Gadhafi and his minions) and to attack them.
Third, in once-prosperous Ivory Coast, the French went in with the U.N. peacekeepers, and within some 40 hours were able to overthrow the brutal strongman Laurent Gbagbo, who looked quite ridiculous as he was taken out in his ill-fitting pajamas, looking hopeless and forlorn. Another victory.
Fourth, as hard as it is sometimes to take, we interpret the Chinese "miracle," or whatever it is, as a compliment to us, if we really think about it. (Thinking ...)
Remember the '60s and '70s, when people who gave thought to the development of new nations were intent upon differentiating between "modernization" and "westernization"? The idea was that developing nations shouldn't have to accept every facet of the West's extraordinary progress to develop themselves.
Well, China certainly has done both. We can be peeved and jealous about their learning from us, or we can say that, in effect, we have won. I prefer the latter.
Fifth, we can also say -- in fact, we must say -- that we have been damn fools to allow a $14 trillion debt to grow right under our highly unobservant feet. It's not difficult to sit back and just pout: How could this have happened? Why us?
But this last year the country has woken up. For the first time, we're aware of our stupidity, and both Democrats and Republicans seem determined to face it, albeit in different ways. Where they come together, however, is in many of President Obama's new ideas about everything from solar power, to electric cars, to renewable energy, to renewing the country's infrastructure.
I see us at a crossroads where we must decide whether we are going to forge ahead, paying off our debts and innovating new technologies for the future, not to speak of staying out of wars we have no business in, or whether we choose to wither away in the recent unproductive past.
Despite all our problems, I see us moving forward. The Civil War and the Bay of Pigs are past history; now we must take control of our future.