It wasn’t until the penultimate sentence of the final chapter that I was certain what Amitava Kumar’s latest book was trying to say. “Instead,” the author concludes, “the larger point is that the war on terror is obscuring from our sight the war in Iraq and its human cost.” Prior to this declaration, Kumar had expended 186 pages’ worth of explication, to varying degrees of success, without explicitly supporting any particular thesis.
A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, whose title is a play on an earlier work with a nearly identical title (Kumar turned “book” into “bomb”), looks very much like a supplementary reader in a cultural studies class and, in fact, reads similarly to what one would expect from such a niche role. That Kumar enticed me to keep reading long after I’d given up hope on discovering the book’s raison d’être entitles the author to a small measure of genuflection, if even a bit reluctantly.
Kumar’s reflections on the American response to the September 11 attacks center around two individuals: Hemant Lakhani, “a seventy-year-old tried for attempting to sell a fake missile to an FBI informant;” and Shahawar Matin Siraj, who the author believes was “baited by the New York Police Department into a conspiracy to bomb a subway.” Interspersed throughout are various vignettes devoted to artists and intellectuals whose visceral repulsion with an increasingly militant national anti-terrorism campaign was duly expressed in some truly inventive works of art. Among these is Hasan Elahi’s rigorous self-surveillance routine, in which he painstakingly logs every action he undertakes, ostensibly as evidence in the event of a government investigation — but on a larger scale, as a protest against that very same state-directed intervention.
Kumar’s failings, strangely enough, can be attributed to his fascination with this and other tangential narratives. It is not that they are irrelevant to a sober discussion of anti-terror initiatives; however, at times the author becomes so enamored of his subjects that he neglects to take a larger view. He lingers for some time on the questionable role of the government informant in the Lakhani case, recounting his many failings as a businessman as if to prove his lack of credibility via low credit score. And yet Kumar recoils when such circumstantial evidence is used to convict Lakhani, a man who was caught on tape proclaiming that “it will [expletive] their mother if one or two [planes are struck by bombs]…If it happens ten or fifteen places simultaneously at the same time…The people will be scared to death that how this could have happened.”
The problem with focusing so heavily on character is that the same technique Kumar uses to condemn the government’s methods in pursuing suspected conspirators is doubly as effective against the perceived victims of the state’s investigations. Clearly, as evidenced by American atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, serious crimes were committed in the name of justice. But Kumar’s valiant attempts to humanize the enemy notwithstanding, his defenses wither in the face of insurmountable evidence. Seemingly realizing this, Kumar mostly shies away from directly contradicting judicial verdicts; instead, he observes from his perch on the periphery, remarking on incongruity on the margins as the heavy hand of the state came crashing down with a vengeance.
Describing the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Kumar notes that “what saves me from the annihilating hatred, if only for a moment, is the voice of the terrorist at the other end [of the phone conversation, which was recorded]…He is more interested in describing to his superior the rooms that he says are large and lavish. It’s amazing, he says, the windows are huge here…Rightly or wrongly, I’m caught by the drama of the displaced provincial, the impoverished youth finding himself in the house of wealth.” This all makes for a tidy little novel, but reality is rarely so neatly synopsized. By dancing along the edges of the legal process, Kumar contributes little to the discussion of where the American response went wrong. This is an unfortunate consequence caused by a writer’s compassion; the result, then, is a scattered cacophony that leaves one unsatisfied with the hurried conclusion.
Fareed Zakaria is a very reasonable man. In this sense, the contrast between him and the rest of mainstream American punditry is stark indeed. Coming from anyone else, a book with the title The Post-American World could plausibly entail an exercise in sensationalist doomsday forecasts; from Zakaria, we know that such is not the case. Some conservatives and patriots may disagree with the book’s contents, but it is impossible to dismiss as a self-loathing work of anti-nationalism.
Zakaria has the distinct privilege of combining his position of respect and influence within the court of American public opinion with the nuanced perspectives he has gained from his initial outsider status. In 1982, the author was an eighteen year-old Indian student on a flight to the United States, about to embark on a four-year educational journey in a country where he would eventually settle. “The preceding decade had been a rough one in India,” writes Zakaria, “marked by mass protests, riots, secessionist movements, insurgencies, and the suspension of democracy.”
But something has happened since then — in India, in China, and in many other nations as well. Zakaria calls this something “the rise of the rest,” as “countries all over the world have been experiencing rates of economic growth that were once unthinkable.” Unsurprisingly, given the title of his book, Zakaria is not merely interested in this economic phenomenon as a historical anomaly, but also as an indication of America’s rapidly changing role in the new era. In this, our twenty-first century edition of a brave new world, “the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance. That does not mean we are entering an anti-American world. But we are moving into a post-American world [emphasis in original], one defined and directed from many places and by many people.”
Instead of wallowing in national self-depression, however, Zakaria welcomes this new period. He notes that the American share of global GDP has remained relatively constant for decades; and he elucidates the truths hidden behind the alarmist (and often misunderstood) statistics about American decline. But while Zakaria’s prognostications leave plenty of space for a bright future, his is not a utopian vision unencumbered by hard facts. (One notable exception is his diagnosis of the American economy: “The economic dysfunctions in America today are real, but, by and large, they are not the product of deep inefficiencies within the American economy.” The first edition of his book was printed in April 2008, just months before the economy bottomed out; a later paperback edition included a new preface predicting that “the current economic upheaval will only hasten the move to a post-American world.”) Indeed, Zakaria levels criticisms in a variety of areas, decrying the United States’ “highly dysfunctional politics,” acknowledging that “the American school system is in crisis,” and dubbing the nation an “enfeebled” superpower. In his final chapter, “American Purpose,” Zakaria asks, “How did the United States blow it? [It] has had an extraordinary hand to play in global politics…Yet, by almost any measure…Washington has played this hand badly. America has had a period of unparalleled influence. What does it have to show for it?”
That is a question whose answer will depend on the person, but Zakaria’s prescription for American healing, while hardly groundbreaking, is based in historical precedent: more multilateralism. Contrary to some who argue that idealism is always the refuge of lesser nations while realpolitik is embraced by hegemons, Zakaria points out that the United States “was the dominant power at the end of World War II, when it founded the United Nations, created the Bretton Woods system of international economic cooperation, and launched the world’s key international organizations. America had the world at its feet, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman chose not to create an American imperium.”
Interestingly, Zakaria’s ideas have found traction in the administration of President Barack Obama. The results are mixed: Obama’s extended hand to Iran was met with a clenched fist and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been left largely unaffected, but Obama was able to broker a deal between the heads of the Chinese and French states at the G-20 summit, and the United States and Russia recently finalized a nuclear arms reduction deal. It remains to be seen exactly what will follow from the American presidency’s renewed emphasis on diplomacy, but early returns indicate some potential for positive results. We may live in a post-American world, but if Fareed Zakaria has any say in the theater of global politics, the United States will be far from playing a bit role.