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Where is the character of the nation?

September 28, 2001

After the terror attacks in New York and Washington DC two weeks ago, Americans immediately closed ranks behind their president. In a moment of crisis, they displayed a rare quality of national unity. Therein lies the strength of the American character.

The checksandbalances system among the executive, judicial and legislative branches was temporarily put on hold. Both the judicial branch and the Congress dissolved into the gravity of the crisis situation, merging themselves seamlessly with the White House so that President George W Bush could exercise his leadership with a full mandate to act the way he sees fit.

Three days after the terror attacks, Bush observed a Day of Remembrance at the Washington National Cathedral, where four other US presidents and the generals and statesmen came to hear lessons about mercy and justice.

It was only last year, during the highly charged presidential campaign, that Bill Clinton, Bush’s predecessor, traded some abusive remarks with his father, George Bush senior. Bush himself was also locked in a bitter campaign conflict with Al Gore over the election results in Florida, where the high stakes of the presidency had to be decided by the Supreme Court.

They were all there at the Washington National Cathedral, from Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bush senior, Clinton to Gore, burying any past personal grievances. It was a sign of reconciliation amid the horror of terrorism that struck down the two World Trade Centre towers and ripped apart a portion of the Pentagon building. The terror attacks would completely paralyse the American psyche for the weeks to come.

The following week saw Bush make his way to Congress to deliver the speech of his life. It amounted to a declaration of war, although the enemies were quite elusive this time. He sent out an unambiguous message that other nations had to decide whether they would side with the United States or with the terrorists. He would not accept anything in between. The Congress gave him full authority to pursue the war efforts against the terrorists.

Then both the president and the Congress quickly handed over the down payments – US$20 billion (Bt885 billion) to the reconstruction of New York, $20 billion to the preparations of the military campaign, and $15 billion to the US airline industry. The airline companies were on the verge of bankruptcy from the terrorist scare and would not survive until the end of this year without a federal bailout. Any dissenting opinions against these big bills were almost inaudible.

The ability to get things done quickly at the 11th hour is a unique American characteristic. You might not like the United States, but you cannot help admiring the capacity of its people to unite in the moment of crisis. By virtue of this precarious circumstance, the Bush presidency has been completely transformed. His job approval rating has soared to an historic high level of more than 90 per cent, the highest ever of all US presidents in modern history.

Bush has become the foremost symbol of a warrior president, ready to lead the US into uncharted territories.

In contrast, Thailand displayed virtually no character at all in the moment of crisis. While the global hedge funds and financiers were attacking the baht in the first half of 1997, most Thai people were not aware that they were confronting a modern curren¬cy war launched on computer screens. The financial bubble created since the early 1990s was about to go bust. Thailand was illprepared for the currency war; in fact, the Thai leadership did not admit that the country was having deeprooted problems in the first place.

General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, prime minister at the time, was facing an uphill task in steering the country ahead, while his coalition partners in the Chat Pattana Party were stabbing him in the back. The Bank of Thailand authorities were hardly working in unison to deal with the twin crises arising from the financial and foreign exchange debacles. The bankers were blaming the government. The businessmen were blaming the banks. There were fingers pointing all around. Nobody was making a sacrifice.

And in the end, the problems just went nowhere until the country was plunged into a fullblown crisis and had to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. After a Democratled government took over in late 1997, there was initial enthusiasm. But before long, the fingers started to point around again. And again, nobody was making a sacrifice or reforming the way they did business. People in the banking and corporate sectors just hoped that the government would perform a miracle by turning around the economy back to the good old days without anybody having to feel the pain.

Now four years after the crisis, Thailand is still going nowhere significant in terms of reforming its banking and corporate sectors. Soon there will be fingers pointing at the Thaksin government because the economy will never recover.

Where is the character of the nation?

Thanong Khanthong



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