Comment: The Persistence of Politics

The first casualty of war is said to be truth, but
more precisely the casualty is complexity. In war, there are Evil and Good,
Enemies and Allies, a Them and an Us, conveniently spelled U.S. George Bush
declared: "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." Excoriating an
enemy whose suicide bombers fly in the name of Allah, Bush also clarified that
God is, in fact, on our side.

As a national spasm of righteous rage, war is a bad time for liberal
intellectuals, whose very vocation is complexity. In war, domestic reform gets
sidetracked; dissent gets confused with treason. Liberals themselves tend to
divide into realists and idealists. The intellectual who agonizes over war's
moral complexities risks getting punched out in a bar. In WWII, when Nazism was
an unambiguous enemy, liberal intellectuals could reconcile patriotism with love
of complex puzzles by joining the OSS.

This war, I fear, will be the most frustrating in our history. For all of the
popular outrage and national unity, even our best-informed leaders literally
don't know what to do. As I write this, the latest menace to Homeland Defense is
said to be anthrax spores sprayed from single-engine crop dusters, which could
easily depopulate a major city. How, without turning the United States into a
garrison state, do we protect against this horror--not to mention insidious
assaults on the water supply, computer mayhem, and car bombs made from common
ingredients? What a grimly ironic twist on the splendidly decentralized Internet
age. What passes for civil defense has been revealed as a patchwork of Keystone
Kops--but how severe a cure is sensible? Even as a police state, how secure would
we be?

The military challenge is no less baffling. There is a terrible risk that we
will overreach or underreach; that we will target the wrong enemy and inflame
hundreds of millions of ordinary Muslims without wiping out terrorists. For all
its determination, the Bush administration doesn't entirely know whether Iraq was
involved; whether to make war on Baghdad even if it was; whether to prosecute a
ground war in Afghanistan in winter. It doesn't know how well the terror network
would operate without bin Laden, or even where he is. Compared to what we face
now, Mutually Assured Destruction looks pretty good: The other side, at least,
had a country and a civilian population that we could hold hostage.

If ever there were a moment to engage and debate complexities, it
is this one. And in wartime, debate also risks turning poisonous. Some, to my
left, think that Bush is simply to be resisted; that the roots of the present
crisis are mainly in America's own imperial overreach and the injustices of the
global order that America champions. Others, to my right, see this as a simple
war of liberal democracy against a new totalitarianism. Each group thinks that
the other is naive and dangerous. Both, I think, have pieces of the truth.

Certainly, the West's own swagger, from the Crusades through
Churchill's carving up the post-Ottoman Near East, the cynical politics of oil,
the propping up of client states from Iran to Egypt, and the double standard on
Israeli excess have all stoked fundamentalist Islamic rage. Certainly, wretched
refugee camps have been breeding grounds for two generations of militants; for
some, suicide jihads are a step up. In a moment when the heart of New York has
just been incinerated, dare a liberal mention words like Hiroshima? One risks
getting slugged in that bar.

Can we admit that as we cherish our liberal democracy at home, we also recoil
from some of what it does abroad. Isn't that what my generation was resisting in
Vietnam? In this crisis, if America is heedless of historic grievance and reads
the current conflict as nothing but Good versus Evil, we risk miscalculating the
politics of alliance and misconstruing war aims as well as aims of ultimate peace
and reconstruction.

At the same time, medieval Islam's ruthless assault on liberal democracy and
its civilian population must be resisted totally, whatever the contributory
causes. As good liberals, we were able to connect the misery of the industrial
age to the appeal of Marxism and still battle the total menace of the Soviet
communism. Indeed, the Kennan generation of liberals had enough appreciation of
complexity to opt for patient containment of communism and to reject World War
III. What a magnificent wartime argument that was.

So in this uncharted crisis, we must insist on the persistence of
politics. Despite the national unity in grief and outrage, despite the national
resolve that terror must end, there are grave questions of tactic, priority, and
proportion. Presidential polls notwithstanding, Congress, miraculously, isn't
giving the administration a blank check. The print press, if not television, has
made plenty of room for skeptical and dissenting voices. We Americans are now
arguing passionately about security and civil liberty, about what kind of
economic stimulus and reconstruction we need, about Amtrak and airports and
prescription drugs, about whether to repeal tax cuts in the name of equal
sacrifice, and about the diplomatic imperative of multilateralism. Privatizing
airport security has been revealed as a disaster, and privatizing Social Security
is still a dubious idea. Everything debated before September 11 is still in
contention, and more so.

As our president put it, terrorist fundamentalists hate our freedom
"to disagree with each other." If this is indeed a different kind of war, it
demands a different kind of wartime unity--one that celebrates strength in debate
and embraces complexity, unflinchingly.

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