From Capitol Riots to Covid Wreck to Kabul Rout, How 2021 Cracked Uncle Sam’s Halo

‘When US sneezes, the world wheezes’ or, if you prefer, ‘When America sneezes, the world catches a cold’. These oft-used, even clichéd words, have come to describe the ripple effect, mostly economic, that events in the United States have around the globe. Ironically, the phrase itself is a European import, first coined by aristocratic Prussian diplomat Klemens Wenzel Furst von Metternich during the Napoleonic era to describe France’s influence on Europe.

Metternich’s soul may find some solace in knowing that the bastardized version of his words has lost some truth after the events of 2021, and is in fact now used as an indictment of US missteps instead of an indication of its soft power.

To be fair to Uncle Sam, 2021 wasn’t easy on anyone. Nation after nation, including India, was deluged by the Delta wave of Covid-19. And to be fair to Joe Biden, much of the damage was done by his predecessor Donald Trump who had, ironically, set out to ‘Make America Great Again’. But the year started off with the Capitol Hill riots and is ending with Afghanistan back in Taliban control, leaving the Indian subcontinent to bear the brunt.

Capitol Riots

Conspiracy theories, fake news, misinformation and provocation by the President culminated in a visual blow to American democracy right in its temple on January 6.

Egged on by Donald Trump, a crowd of angry protesters — some armed, others dressed and painted in disturbing white supremacist themes — laid siege to the seat of American power.

The mob first surrounded and then broke into the Capitol Hill, demanding that the otherwise mundane exercise of Congress’ certification of the presidential electoral vote be stopped. They erroneously claimed the election “was stolen” from Trump by Biden. Lawmakers scattered, police officers were beaten and a woman was shot.

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington, on January 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Americans used to such visuals being beamed from countries they still call the ‘Third World’ watched in shock as did the world. In days, weeks and months that followed, more visuals emerged, some shot by the rioters themselves.

The insurrection led to the deaths of multiple people the day of the attack or shortly thereafter, while several officers who responded during the Capitol attack later died by suicide, as per a CNN report.

So far, more than 700 people have been charged by the Justice Department in connection with the riot. Still, Republicans in Congress have repeatedly downplayed the violence and largely remained loyal to Trump.

Violent insurrectionists loyal to Donald Trump scale the west wall of the US Capitol in Washington, on January 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

The House Select Committee investigating the riot has relayed text messages to show that Donald Trump Jr., Fox News personalities and lawmakers unsuccessfully implored then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on January 6 to get Trump to stop the violence.

Uncle Sam’s high horse wobbled as the violent uprising by deluded rioters who fancied themselves as patriots made deeper cuts into the nation’s wounds over race and ideology. The silver lining — it put an end to Trump’s ‘covfefe’ on Twitter.

Covid Wreck

It is the world’s handicap that it looks to the US when faced with once-in-a-generation crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. And in a lesson for future crises, it was spectacularly let down.

As the novel coronavirus made its way out of Wuhan in China towards the West first in early 2020, the US response was shockingly incompetent. The President of a country ranked number one in outbreak preparedness by the Global Health Security Index underplayed the pandemic, undermined public health experts, touted fake cures, dithered on lockdown and made no passionate appeals for vaccination. His tweets calling it ‘Chinese virus’ even spurred attacks against Asian-Americans.

Fittingly, Trump was booed by the mostly Republican crowd in Dallas recently when he revealed to former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly that he had received a booster shot. According to a recent poll by the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation, 60% of unvaccinated Americans as of October identified as Republicans.

A protester during an anti-vaccine demonstration in Central Park, New York City on July 24, 2021. (REUTERS/David ‘Dee’ Delgado)

With the bar set so low and vaccination promising results, Joe Biden confidently pronounced on July 4, 2021: “Two hundred and forty-five years ago, we declared our independence from a distant king. Today, we are closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.”

Enter, Delta, followed by Omicron.

The promise that surrounded the US vaccination campaign early in 2021 has been met with more formidable variants that have dashed any hopes of quickly moving past the virus that has killed more than 820,000 in the country.

The President’s aspiration was knocked well off-course by the Delta variant, slow vaccine uptake and pandemic fatigue among even well-intentioned Americans. And now the country enters a new year, the Omicron variant has pushed daily cases to grim new heights. With more than 580,000 cases, the country shattered its own world record for daily rise in Covid-19 cases for second straight day.

The rise of the highly transmissible Omicron variant in South Africa, too, is attributed to vaccine inequality the West failed to bridge.

US President Joe Biden holds a card with the number of deaths from Covid-19 as he delivers remarks at the White House on July 4, 2021. (REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein)

According to an analysis by the ONE Campaign, an international aid and advocacy organization, only 4.7% of people living in low-income countries have received a first dose. Wealthy nations administered more than 173 million booster shots, while lower-income countries administered about 32 million first shots till November.

Pressed to act, Biden has taken steps to make billions of dollars available to drugmakers to scale up domestic production for make vaccines available to poorer nations. The White House hopes the move will build capacity to produce an additional 1 billion shots per year.

Robbie Silverman, senior advocacy manager at Oxfam America, welcomes the plan, but says it is nowhere near sufficient. “What the world really needs is distributed regional manufacturing capacity of vaccines, and it sounds like this investment is focused on building US capacity,” he said. “We desperately need the companies who have a monopoly over the Covid vaccines to transfer their technology, and we need the US government to use its leverage.”

Ava Alkon, a senior policy and research officer at Doctors Without Borders, has even called for the US to be more transparent about how many extra doses it has. She said some estimates suggest the US could have at least 500 million surplus vaccines.

Kabul Rout

If there was ever a war with no winners, it was the war in Afghanistan, America’s longest. Nearly 20 years after the US invaded Afghanistan to avenge the September 11 attacks and strike at Al Qaeda and Taliban who sheltered Osama Bin Laden, another American administration has left the country in the control of the Taliban that still maintains close ties with terrorist organisations.

Biden had actively campaigned on ending the war and bringing back the troops, and was supported by majority of the Americans. But scenes that unfolded from the US withdrawal in August and the ease with which the Taliban overthrew the legitimate government with no resistance from Afghan forces made many question the point of the last 20 years. The US is said to have spent $80 billion in total to train Afghan forces.

Crowds desperate to flee congregated outside the gates of Kabul’s airport, mothers flung their children across the fences to US service personnel, American military planes were filled with evacuees. More than 150 Americans struggling to get to the airport were airlifted by helicopter off the roof of a nearby hotel. And 170 civilians and 13 US service members were killed in a terrorist attack outside the airport’s gates.

A US Marine assists at an Evacuation Control Check Point during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on August 26, 2021. (US Marine Corps Handout via Reuters)

The Independent correspondent Andrew Buncombe wrote in an article that senior officers in the military had advised Biden to retain a small number of US troops in Afghanistan to “continue overseeing the training of Afghan forces”. Biden instead chose to follow the peace deal signed by the Trump administration with the Taliban in 2020.

“After having campaigned as a candidate who promised a return to a steady hand on the tiller when it came to international affairs, Biden sat and stubbornly watched a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan turn into a deadly debacle. International allies were horrified,” Buncombe wrote.

Thousands of US-allied Afghans were left behind under the threat of revenge killings the Taliban hasn’t shied away from.

Back in the US, blame-game began with calls for special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the 2020 deal, to be sacked. Reuters quoted defence officials as saying that the State Department was out of touch with the reality on ground and put too much faith in the Ashraf Ghani government.

Afghan evacuees on a C-17 Globemaster III at a Middle East staging area on August 23, 2021. (US Air Force//Handout via Reuters)

Biden in fact contradicted his previous assertion, saying the US intervention was never about nation-building but had “always been preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland”.

Separated only by Pakistan, the situation in Afghanistan is also cause for concern for India. India has so far invested around $3 billion in different welfare and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. Besides, Indian security and intelligence agencies have recorded significant increase in drugs being funneled from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to or via India.

New Delhi also fears Pakistan-based terror groups may use Afghan soil to plan and launch attacks against India, a fear it has voiced on international forums too.

The US is now trying to tread that delicate line between providing aid to the people of Afghanistan and keeping Taliban under pressure to prevent human rights violations and terrorist activity.

Chinese Chase

As the United States’ soft power loses sheen, China is close on its heels, especially in the Middle East. Taliban’s rise is the latest foreign policy misstep by the US in the Middle East after Iraq invasion and the ISIS mess in Syria that ended up helping Bashar al-Assad.

The UAE recently dumped the US for China, cancelling a deal worth $23 billion to buy F-35 fighter jets after Washington gave it an ultimatum to cancel a telecommunications deal with Chinese giant Huawei. UAE is now buying 80 Rafale jets from France instead.

From its investigation into Covid-19 origins to the diplomatic boycott of Winter Olympics in Beijing – replicated only by Australia, Britain and Canada – US has only scored symbolic points against China.

China, on the other hand, has been ploughing money into smaller countries in Africa and Latin America, building airports, dams and ports. When the US withdrew aid to the WHO, China stepped in, albeit with a fraction of the American contribution, but with one clear message – the dragon is breathing down on Uncle Sam.

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