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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 22, 2009

History lessons for next decade

By Frida Ghitis

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

George W. Bush and Barack Obama both discovered that even the president of the U.S. sometimes must adjust to global realities.

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A decade ago, I packed my things and flew to Buenos Aires to work on CNN's coverage of the Millennium celebrations.

The trip came as a welcome break from the news at home, where the melodramatic saga of Elian Gonzales the 6-year-old Cuban shipwrecked in Miami had started threatening to devour all the available oxygen for reporting on other world events.

Still, the planet was preparing to party like it was 1999. Except that technology experts told us the world might go haywire because of an ominous computer glitch called Y2K, which might bring an end to life as we knew it at the strike of midnight that would bring the year 2000.

But life as we knew it would come to an end soon enough.

In the United States, the stock market was in the throes of what we would later label The Dot-Com Bubble. We were getting rich in a hurry. Computer-savvy college dropouts were becoming billionaires. Stock prices were skyrocketing, and even the government was flush.

The year ended with the biggest surplus in the history of the federal government. Even the government was turning a profit. Good times!

The year ended with plenty of champagne, and by February, George W. Bush edged John McCain to become the undefeatable frontrunner for the Republican nomination.

Bush campaigned on a promise to slash taxes and rework America's "arrogant" foreign policy of the Clinton years. He would also bring dignity to the Oval Office.

After all, the decade was winding down after a sordid drama of sexual misconduct that almost brought down a president. Candidate Bush promised he would restore America to its pre-scandal glory.

He vowed to engage in a "humble" approach to international relations, and he almost had to wash his mouth every time he derided the distasteful concept of "nation-building." Bush mocked Al Gore's plans for a "lockbox" to protect Social Security funds, ridiculing the Democrat's "fuzzy math." Gore sighed so loudly in the debates that his exhalations became a staple of "Saturday Night Live." Those were the days.

The 1990s had not gone cold yet when the stock market came crashing down, pulling down with it our irrational exuberance, our 401(k)s and much of our optimism.

Problems were already brewing during the Clinton days. The ingredients for disaster had already gone into pots being stirred in mud houses in Afghanistan, in the marbled halls of Congress and in lavish offices high above Wall Street.

By Sept. 11, 2001, high stock prices, Elian Gonzales and Y2K had become part of a fabled past. Budget surpluses quickly went the same way, as did humility in foreign affairs and disdain for nation-building.

After the 9/11 attacks, Bush's foreign policy promises, like the Twin Towers, turned to dust, demolished by a new reality. Mismanaged wars, fiscal irresponsibility and poor choices, made the Bush presidency one of the most unpopular in the country's history.

The Bush presidency ended with the United States deep in the red, the economy in desperate straits and America's international standing profoundly eroded. But the cavalry was on the way.

Optimism peaked over the horizon as people placed their hope in a young new politician who called himself half-mockingly a "peace-monger."

Like George W. Bush, Barack Obama came promising a new way of doing things. Less than one year into his presidency, however, his own approval ratings are sliding fast and some of his promises are also starting to seem almost quaintly ridiculed by reality.

The Elian soap opera has been replaced with the Tiger Woods saga. The human drama captures our attention, allowing us to avoid looking at more-daunting challenges.

A look back at the first decade of the first century of the third millennium should prove humbling to us all. Even the most powerful man on Earth, whoever occupies the office, must adjust his plans to a global reality he does not fully control.

We may prepare perfectly for Y2K and end up facing 9/11.

The coming decade will be full of already brewing surprises.