Comment: Second Thoughts

When the World Trade Center was attacked, some
progressives went, almost reflexively, into antiwar mode. Most, however,
supported military action, because the incineration of innocents in the heart of
Manhattan was so appalling; because the Taliban regime was so brutal;
and--somewhat less nobly--because dissent in a time of national outrage courted
political isolation. After nearly six months, however, the Taliban is gone,
policy is a mess, and the president should be fair game.

There was a road not taken--treating the September 11 attacks as a
criminal conspiracy, not an act of war. September 11 was a failure of
intelligence, security, and diplomacy. The president might have responded by
beefing up security, intelligence, diplomatic pressure, and commando efforts.
From the start, of course, Bush opted for war. Only history can judge whether the
Afghan war was a bold stroke or a blunder, depending on the secondary effects.
But that jury is still out.

Historical choices look inevitable only afterward. The Republican ultras of
the late 1940s nearly killed the Marshall Plan and George Kennan's master
strategy of containment--and that would have left America with the awful choice
of a Stalinist Western Europe or World War III. Lyndon Johnson might have
rejected escalation in Vietnam and gone on to a second term consolidating social
reform and his Democratic majority. Neither policy choice was inevitable.
Marshall and Kennan got it right; LBJ got it wrong. The seemingly easy ouster of
the Taliban may yet turn out to be Pyrrhic, not because of battlefield losses,
but as the opening scene in a wider folly.

After September 11, I backed military action, but with misgivings about the
side effects. One concern was the risk of wider war and destabilization of South
Asia. Another was the impact on the Arab-Israeli peace process. Yet another was
that hard-liners would take control of foreign and military policy. At home, one
feared that the Bush administration would use the war to achieve an otherwise
unpopular domestic program and to crimp civil liberty. These misgivings,
unfortunately, have been confirmed all too vividly by events.

Now that the shooting phase of the war is over, so is the doctrine that
politics stops at water's edge. Bush's axis-of-evil declaration, lumping together
al-Qaeda, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, is insane. It has already helped
hard-liners in Iran to regain the initiative, and it could well set back
d├ętente in the Koreas. The risk of war with Iraq is real. Evidently, Bush
embraced multilateralism only as long as he needed it for the war effort. In the
first months after September 11, Bush deserved broad, if qualified, support. No
longer.

Revoking Bush's free pass on foreign policy will
also have salutary effects
on the domestic debate. Democrats have been hesitant to fully challenge Bush's
warped budgetary priorities because of his presumed invincibility on the Afghan
war. But with the Taliban dispatched, there is plenty to debate on both foreign
and domestic issues. The most important thing to challenge is the premise that
America is now on a kind of permanent wartime footing to which all else must be
subordinate. Even during the Cold War, something genuinely close to a permanent
security crisis, there were lively arguments about everything from nuclear
strategy to a broad range of economic and social questions.

The axis-of-evil delusion, at least, has emboldened a few congressmen
and senators of both parties to criticize Bush. The issue of Afghan civilian
casualties has moved from the left press to the front page of The New York
Times.
The administration lately has had to backpedal on the rights of POWs
and on the scope of military tribunals.

The brief Afghan war is an accomplished fact, but everything about its
aftermath is subject to debate. That includes the administration's multilateral
rhetoric and its go-it-alone actions; its concrete plans for expanding the
military, revamping the CIA, and reorganizing homeland security; and its peculiar
conception of public health.

America will never be 100 percent safe from acts of terror. But that doesn't
mean we have become a garrison state with the rules of democratic discourse
waived. The moment for bipartisan triumphalism and unquestioning support for a
wartime commander in chief is over. Dissent should be back in fashion. Mainstream
critics need to give voice to their private second thoughts, not just on Bush's
dismal domestic program or his odd global geography but on his dubious notion of
permanent war.

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