9-11, One Year Later

September 11 will be commemorated this year as a day of national and private grief, but it is also a political anniversary. One year ago, the post–Cold War era came to an end and a new phase in our country's history began. What this new phase will be -- whether the September 11 attacks will stand as an isolated episode or initiate a longer and perhaps more dreadful chain of events -- we cannot possibly know. The past year, however, has already told us a great deal about the strengths and limitations of President George W. Bush's response to 9-11 and the definition that he has given to this new stage in our nation's life.

In the immediate aftermath, the president got one critically important thing right: the prosecution of the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Perhaps the United States should have obtained more international backing from the start. But because America was attacked, there was little serious question that we had the right of "hot pursuit" -- the right, that is, to go immediately after the people who had sponsored the assault and the government that had harbored them. Some critics say that because we didn't kill or capture al-Qaeda's top leaders, the war failed. But it denied them a state-protected enclave, Osama bin Laden is probably dead and his organization has suffered a severe setback.

But if Bush got one big thing right, he also got three equally important things wrong. First, in calling for a "war against terrorism" of indefinite duration and uncertain scope, he made a dangerously unlimited bid for the extraordinary authority and heightened deference that presidents enjoy only in wartime. Although "war" was the right term for the conflict that unfolded in Afghanistan, it doesn't describe most of what's required to stop terrorism in the future, and the risk of using the term is that it provides a rationale for restricting civil liberties and treating disagreement as disloyalty. War is the eternal basis of executive aggrandizement; the language of war in the struggle against terrorism is only the latest attempt to turn a national emergency into a political trump card.

Second, Bush has set the United States on a course toward a real war with Iraq that is fraught with risk: the military risks of an invasion, the political risks of alienating support for the fight against terrorism even among our allies, and the long-term costs and complications of trying to maintain a stable and friendly government in Iraq once Saddam Hussein is overthrown. A war might be worth these risks if there were clear provocation, but an unprovoked, preemptive war threatens to divide America from its friends and from within, to jeopardize the cause it is ostensibly aimed at advancing and to set a dangerous precedent for the entire world.

Third, while proclaiming a state of war, Bush has not asked for the kind of broadly shared sacrifice that usually comes with wartime. Past wars have almost always brought tax increases; the war in Afghanistan -- and soon, perhaps, in Iraq -- will have the unique fiscal accompaniment of tax cuts geared toward the upper-income brackets. The combination is not just unseemly, it is morally obtuse. A wartime drumbeat with tax cuts may be a Republican political dream, but it is also a fiscal nightmare. Here we have a president who is as unalterably opposed to raising taxes as he is committed to building up the military: a combination of fixed purposes that is destined to produce fiscal wreckage (it already would have if Bill Clinton had not bequeathed enormous surpluses).

A different president could have asked for broadly shared sacrifice, avoided the overreach into Iraq, worked more closely with our allies to cultivate support for American policy and limited the damage to liberty from the fight against terrorism. On the grim political anniversary that we observe September 11, we must remember these things, too.

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