Comment: No Ordinary Time

All of us find ourselves shocked to be living, abruptly, in a wholly new era--and none were more shocked than the Bush administration. Globally, the White House is now pursuing a feverish multilateralism, a reversal of the Powell Doctrine to avoid "shooting wars" that we can't easily win, and even may soon embrace yesterday's conservative epithet "nation building." Domestically, the holy free market stands impeached, and even Republicans are necessarily looking to government for everything from civil defense to public health to economic stimulus. As a partisan, Bush seems more like Clinton, governing in coalition with the opposition party and outraging his own troops.


Yet one hesitates to look for silver linings. There is good reason to worry that we are in for a prolonged siege in which America could sacrifice many of its easy liberties and still not feel secure. We may fail to comprehend why so many ordinary Arabs and Muslims sympathize with bin Laden's goals and resentments if not his methods. And even when the shooting ends in Afghanistan, there will be no foreseeable resolution to Cold War II.


We are now moving toward a new international system as radically different from the one that obtained on September 10 as the American wartime alliance with Stalin was from what preceded or followed it. The idea of liberal democracies (plus Russia) uniting against Islamist fanatics has an attractive ring to it, but dividing the Muslim world into modernizers and fundamentalists, friends and foes, will be a practical impossibility.


Secularist Turkey, uniquely, has just barely reconciled Islam with parliamentary democracy, after almost a century of trying. Every semifriendly Muslim regime, from Egypt to Pakistan, is at greater risk today because of the sympathies of its citizens. Turning this assortment of corrupt feudal oligarchies and Caesarist strongmen into liberal democracies is a fantastical project. And in much of the region, more democratically accountable regimes would be even more implacably anti-American. A system in which leaders back America and masses seethe is neither stable nor secure.


It is sensible to dislodge the brutally medieval Taliban regime, though a stable successor may not emerge. It also is sensible to hunt down al-Qaeda, though its legions will likely prove hydra-headed. The most heartening news on the military front, at this writing anyway, is that the war hasn't widened. While those in the Bush administration spoiling for a regional war have not prevailed, the situation is congenial to lunatic ideas. The Wall Street Journal recently featured the conservative historian Paul Johnson calling explicitly for colonizing the entire region. Leaving aside the arrogance of the idea, does any sane person think that in the twenty-first century hundreds of millions of Arabs or Muslims would sit still for nineteenth-century-style occupation? The more frustrating the uneasy standoff punctuated by more terrorist incidents, the greater the risk that disastrously screwball schemes will gain a hearing.

What of the liberal project at home? As Alan Brinkley writes (page 10), wars yield a greater sense of community, compassion, and greater legitimacy for national government. And as Ruy Teixeira demonstrates (page 21), after a brief period of deference the first midterm election in wartime is invariably a good one for the opposition party. Even in 1942, 11 months after Pearl Harbor, the opposition Republicans picked up seats against Roosevelt.

After a queasy week of giving Bush whatever he wanted, the Democrats are providing constructive opposition. The worst parts of Attorney General John Ashcroft's proposed security bill were deleted at Democratic insistence. The opportunistic effort to get new "fast-track" trade authority for Bush is stalled in the House. And there is a very important debate under way about how to fight the oddity of a wartime recession. Finally, some bold Democrats like Barney Frank are demanding repeal of much of the Bush tax cut (page 12). Even the administration is recognizing that those laid off as a result of terrorism need unemployment benefits and health insurance. Wartime changes everything.

Despite early prognostications of optimism, the economy is clearly in serious trouble. It isn't just tourism: Across the economy, industries are laying off workers, deferring investment, and pulling advertising. Consumption itself seems vulgar. Auto ads urging people to buy a new Ford as an act of patriotism fall flat, and the Neiman Marcus catalog seems almost pornographic. In this respect, too, we are in a new era. Neither interest-rate cuts nor tax cuts yield economic stimulus when people aren't spending and industry isn't investing. That leaves government outlay, and we surely need it--not just to stimulate the economy, but to rebuild public systems that have gone to ruin. The war effort may consume many tens of billions of dollars, but public rebuilding and economic stimulus require hundreds of billions.


War, as always, has produced some splits on the liberal left, but you have to be pretty far Left not to think this a basically just war. Interestingly, the current war has produced more serious fissures on the right. Self-styled "National Greatness" conservatives of the Teddy Roosevelt/Weekly Standard variety find themselves at odds with the government-bashers. Libertarian conservatives have more in common with the ACLU. America's own religious fanatics are, for once, a little embarrassed. And supply-siders looking for tax cuts are suddenly very lonely.


It's a perilous time. But the era of despised government, you might say, is over.

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