Six and Two

When I was in college, during Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America," I had a classmate who is the person I always think of when I try to imagine the young George W. Bush. (Although the comparison is terribly unfair to this person, since unlike Bush, he has considerable accomplishment to show for his first 45 years on this planet.) This guy had a little motto, typical of the privileged-punk campus conservatism that was then just taking hold, and that would dominate the next two decades: "U.S.A!," he would declare, pumping a fist in the air, "We're five and one in major wars!"

I'm not sure how he derived the tally (I think the War of 1812 is considered a draw), but it was actually kind of sweetly ironic. After all, the "one" -- the defeat -- was the most recent and very much a presence at that time. Ours was not the Vietnam generation, but we were close enough to it that our camp counselors, when we were kids, could tell us their draft numbers and our cool young professors had gone to grad school for roughly the same reasons Dick Cheney did.

I've been thinking about this recently because -- can we please just say it -- we're six and two now. All the current debate about the escalation in Iraq, about the idea that we're in some sort of "existential" struggle with a shape-shifting enemy, and even about some of the alternatives is just a collective effort to play for overtime, to forestall that final declaration. (If we attack Iran, on the other hand, we could quickly go to six and three and miss the global hegemony play-offs.)

Sports metaphors capture the attitude that led us to where we are today. When the Bush White House, desperate but unserious, declares that "failure is not an option," theirs is the certainty of a football coach exhorting his players at halftime when they're down 28 points. At the end, unthinkable as it may be, the privilege of being the United States -- as opposed to, say, Russia or Germany -- is that we can lose wars, put them in the record books and move on.

But if losing the war is not quite the existential crisis that the advocates of escalation make it seem, it is also not as casual as the sports-score attitude that led us into it suggests. The years following the Iraq loss will be no easier than the decade after the loss in Vietnam. And the problems won't be confined to the war's aftermath. There will be the consequences of our fiscal irresponsibility, a deepening energy crisis, climate change, and the social fissures created by wide inequality and middle-class insecurity.

We don't know what the Iraq War hangover is going to feel like, which is why we want to put it off. It might feel like the mood Jimmy Carter described in his 1979 "malaise" speech: "growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and ... the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation." Or it might be a moment when the political alignments as we've known them begin to break down, when the politics of empty symbolism gives way to a politics of problem solving, when a humbled country makes a fresh start.

That will depend on whether the first president of post-war America will be able to do better than Carter at finding the language and vision that makes that fresh start possible. It sometimes seems that even Democrats who are most outspoken about the need to bring the war to a quick close are naive about the world that follows. Since the 2006 election, Democrats have often behaved as if we're just waking up from a long dream and it's 1993 again. Whatever we did wrong back then, we'll just go back and fix it. So we often seem to be revisiting the arguments of the Clinton years: the relative importance of deficit-reduction and public investment, the health-care fight, the decisions that led to the North American Free Trade Agreement. The front-running Democratic candidate is employing the very slogans ("If you work hard and play by the rules …") and strategists of the winning campaigns of the 1990s.

But there's no turning back. The United States in 2009 will be deeply different than the United States in 1993. Losing a war will be one part of it, but not the whole thing. This is a different country demographically, economically, politically. Leadership in 2009 will have to begin from the realities, the profound limits, and possibly the new possibilities of this moment, not the past.

And if we do it right, a decade later, someone will declare it "Morning in America" again, and some affluent college student somewhere will pump his fist and declare, "We're six and two!"

But we'll know better than to put him in charge.

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