There are two basic theories about how Sept. 11 will change U.S. politics and culture.
The first one contends that the terrorist attacks have transformed everything. Old debates and loyalties are now irrelevant. The red-and-blue divide of the 2000 elections is obsolete. The culture wars are over–or at least on permanent hold. The frivolousness of the 1990s–the age of Clintonism, stock options and reality TV–has given way to a new sense of reality, seriousness and national unity. Politics have been replaced by patriotism. The second theory holds that Sept. 11 and the war against terrorism will bring old divides into sharper focus. The fault lines within conservatism and liberalism, and within the divided culture as a whole, will grow. Foreign-policy disputes that once seemed abstract and insignificant when peace and prosperity were taken for granted will suddenly matter a great deal.
Which of the two theories is correct is impossible to say, but both suggest a new political moment, even a new chapter in American history.
It is certainly a paradoxical moment. More and more Americans are turning to God and religion for guidance in this time of crisis, yet there is a renewed sense that religion has only a limited place in public life, that what separates America from the Taliban is our nation’s tradition of tolerance for different beliefs and different worldviews. Even as Americans reflect on the dark side of modern technology and its powers of destruction, they demand more military technology and more Cipro, better weapons and better vaccines. And while Americans are embracing an expanded role for the federal government, they cannot ignore the unpleasant fact that the government is at least partly responsible for the nation’s lack of readiness in the first place, and that its performance, so far, in the anthrax scare does not inspire great confidence for the future. At the same time, those on the right and left, who for different reasons have spent the last decades calling America immoral or unjust, must now become born-again patriots or become politically obsolete.
At least this much seems likely: As the war against terrorism abroad heats up, and especially if the international anti-terrorism coalition grows unstable or if U.S. soldiers suffer significant casualties, unity at home will begin to fracture. Already, there are fights over federalizing airport security. There will be fights about military strategy and military goals; fights about what constitutes victory and success; fights about how much additional power the federal government should have and how that power should be used; and fights about the justice of America’s cause.
The exact shape of these disagreements and the coalitions that will grow out of them is hard to say. But at least four political constituencies can be envisioned:
* Attack-and-confront unilateralists: This group believes that the U.S. must greatly intensify the war effort by sending ground troops into Afghanistan, facing off with Iraq and hiking the military budget far beyond what President Bush has called for. It believes America should act alone if necessary, and that some of our supposed coalition partners are themselves terrorist-harboring states. It is willing to expand government as needed and sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of national security. And it believes America’s role in the world is “just hegemony,” which means not only winning the war in Afghanistan, but also forcing regime changes in states that threaten the U.S. and that deny basic human rights to their own people.
This group’s leading figures are Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, intellectuals and former government officials Richard N. Perle and William Kristol, and Sen. John McCain.
* Bomb-and-retreat isolationists: This group believes America should bomb whomever it needs to in the Middle East and the Asian subcontinent, then get out of that part of the world entirely. It wants to erect a “fortress America” and build a foreign policy that lets nations like India and Pakistan, or Israel and the Palestinians, fight among themselves. So far, this group has remained politically quiet. But it is alive on conservative television and talk radio, and could emerge as a political force if America is attacked again.
* Cautious internationalists: This is, for now, the policy of the Bush administration, despite the declaration of a battle between good and evil and about a permanent war against international terrorism. This group proceeds slowly and diplomatically. It tailors its military missions to the needs of its allies. It resists using more than small deployments of ground troops. It seeks to avoid direct confrontation with states like Iraq, preferring instead to use indirect pressure like sanctions and inspections. This group has different strands–with Bush more unilateralist and more willing to use force, and most Democrats more cautious and more committed to diplomacy. This divide is most evident on the issue of national missile defense. Moreover, if the war continues to no apparent conclusion, some cautious internationalists could quickly become advocates for an American cease-fire. But, for the most part, this group agrees on the general purpose and strategy of the war, and gives Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the leading figure in this group, the highest praise.
* Anti-American dissidents: This really isn’t a group. Rather, it’s assorted right-wing and left-wing anti-Americanists. Those on the left believe America has no claim to justice; that American capitalism and imperialism are what led our enemies to attack us; and that the war should be stopped. Those on the right believe America deserves its fate, because it has become a godless and immoral nation. Both kinds of anti-Americanists generally retreat from the burdens of public life in favor of their own imagined moral purity. They hate each other, but hate America more.
Predicting the future is perilous. As Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps the greatest social forecaster in history, put it: “In any vision of the future, chance always forms a blind spot which the mind’s eye can never penetrate.” That we are entering a new political moment seems obvious; what it will look like is not.
But it would be foolish to believe that old beliefs, old loyalties and old habits of mind will not significantly shape what comes next. In the long run, if this is true, America will fare well. Its history is basically a story of rising to the occasion when the moment demands it. But it is also a story of disagreement, confusion and dissent along the way. That, too, cannot be forgotten–especially by the nation’s leaders, who may at some point have to act in ways that are necessary but unpopular.
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times