A Legacy of Wasted Chances

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By Jedediah Purdy

Translated from Die Zeit, Sept. 7, 2006

Jedediah Purdy

Assistant Professor of Law Jedediah Purdy

The idea that everything changed on September 11, 2001, was always a conceit. It was a conceit not because it exaggerated the importance of the event, but, curiously, because it underestimated it. The attacks on New York and Washington, for all their terrible human cost, did not change much by themselves. They did, however, change the horizon of political possibility. The shock of that morning, followed by the endlessly repeated images of the collapsing towers and New York’s blasted downtown, shook the country from nearly a decade of complacency and gave politics a fresh urgency. A new sense of danger meant that political leaders could attempt things that would recently have been impossible. The five years since have been a time of confused, distracting, and destructive responses to real problems. Now our options are narrowed by mistakes that have made the problems worse and brought the national mood full circle from complacency about politics to wounded cynicism. It has been a terrible time, and we are only at the end of the beginning.

Prophecies came and went just after the attacks. Some commentators declared an end to irony, as if a reminder of mortality would dampen the charm of double meanings, sly commentary, and wry self-awareness. Others predicted a new martial mood, induced by awareness of perpetual threat. “We are all Israelis now,” wrote Martin Peretz, publisher of the New Republic, before the smoke had cleared over Wall Street. And, it is true, everything felt very serious in those weeks, many volunteers turned up at military recruiting stations after the attacks, and others canceled trips to New York, Washington, Los Angeles, even their local malls in the South and Midwest. But everyday life is persistent. The same citizens, who lived more or less blithely through the daily threat of nuclear annihilation in the Cold War, and their children, soon began to feel safe again, and to act it. President Bush told people to go shopping while he prepared for war, and while it may have been a cynical decision not to ask much of the population, it was a canny one. Meanwhile the ironic spirit, which was decadent and unproductive in the 1990s, has taken a new vitality from Bush’s posturing and dissimulation, always irony’s great targets.

All prediction of a world magically made new quickly faded. The action was in politics, where the latitude to remake the world had suddenly widened, and the day fell to the swift and the bold. Politics is never written on a blank slate. Washington, like a nest of aristocratic lovers, crawls with jealous and thwarted characters waiting for someone to make a fatal misstep. When September 11 opened a new space, familiar agendas rushed to fill it. The USA PATRIOT Act, the notorious law passed just after the attacks, was a wish list of new powers for police and prosecutors, many of its items culled from proposed legislation drafted by members of Bill Clinton’s Department of Justice. The extraordinary claims of presidential power that Bush and his lawyers began to announce after September 11 also had a political pre-history, one far more prosaic than the echoes of Carl Schmitt’s jurisprudence suggested. Why, critics asked, did the White House feel compelled to claim inherent power to detain “enemy combatants” indefinitely and without meaningful trial, set its own standards for interrogation in the teeth of the Geneva Conventions and American legislation forbidding torture, and launch a massive program of domestic surveillance that sneaked around the procedures Congress had announced? After all, Republicans controlled every branch of government, and Congress would have given the President nearly anything he requested in the first two years after September 11. A good part of the reason lay in the 1970s, when Gerald Ford replaced the disgraced Richard Nixon and watched a wave of new legislation impose Congressional oversight on the president’s control of intelligence and law enforcement. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney served in that historically weak and embattled White House, and contemporaries say that they were determined to restore the authority of the presidency against congressional interference. Perhaps they realized that only a war could do it. In any event, when a war dropped in their laps, they knew what to do with it.

The greatest pre-existing agenda of all was the centerpiece of these troubled five years, the invasion of Iraq. Reportorial accounts of the run-up to the invasion make clear that Cheney and Bush drove the decision to take down Saddam Hussein, while the storied neo-conservatives, with their visions of a new Middle East and special solicitude for Israel, served mostly as ideologists after the fact, filling out the rationale of a plan that was in motion within days of September 11. What we may never know is just how the two men understood a choice both were all too ready to make. Cheney is the temperamental opposite of Bill Clinton, a figure who prefers silence to self-revelation, whose dark charisma lies in understatement, and whose fascination with concealment ranges from his periodic disappearances into “an undisclosed location” to his famous declaration that the war on terror would be fought in shadows, an image that now seems a perverse hint of Abu Ghraib and the domestic surveillance program. Bush is Clinton’s intellectual opposite, a man whose chronic inability to explain himself suggests incapacity to understand himself, although his admirers take it as evidence of instinctive judgment too clear to require words. Both seem likely to die with their secrets, or their confusions.

As an attempt to make sense of post-9/11 world, the Iraq invasion was the jewel in a fool’s crown. It became gospel around the White House and in conservative circles that the war on terror would be a new compass for American foreign policy, as the Cold War had been until 1989. But there is a fallacy in this idea. Addressing the threat from terrorists, which is real and probably growing, cannot orient American foreign policy in the way the Cold War did. Making a priority of counter-terrorism reveals nothing about how the United States should address the rise of India and China, two new powers that had integral, if often awkward, places in the Cold War map. It says nothing about how to address a newly restive Latin America, which Washington sometimes seems to have forgotten even as China builds trade and investment relations there, and little more about the humanitarian, public-health, and political crises of sub-Saharan Africa. It shows nothing about how to approach global warming, and, for that matter, it is almost useless in making sense of the American approach to that old Cold War rival, Russia, whose “war on terror” in the Caucasus is at best an opportunistic distraction from the real problem of a nuclear power fraught with authoritarian politics and social disintegration. Of course terrorism deserves much more attention than it received before September 11, but while the Cold War generated a global map of priorities, making such a map from an anti-terror campaign leaves vast tracts of terra nullius.

It is not that preventing terrorism should not be the centerpiece of American foreign policy, but that, if the country wants a serious foreign policy, it cannot be. The conceit that it could be focuses American attention overwhelmingly on the Muslim world and, especially, the Middle East and Central Asia. No matter how serious the problems of those regions, this is a distortion. The suggestion that terrorism should define foreign policy is moral and psychological, not strategic. Its keystone is self-definition by opposition to an enemy who rejects one’s own defining values. While some, especially skeptical Europeans, may find that kind of idea self-servingly stark and heroic, it is certainly intelligible on its own terms. What it cannot be is a substitute for a strategic vision of a changing world, which could guide a foreign policy.

The Iraq war is the crucible of one of the most depressing features of post-9/11 American politics: the nearly total erosion of good-faith debate on both sides of the partisan divide. The blame for starting the decline lies with the Bush Administration. After September 11, Democrats strained to be conciliatory and collaborative, while almost from September 12, the White House suggested that anyone who questioned its agenda was disloyal. The Iraq War, in particular, was sold to the country and the world on the basis of supposedly irrefutable intelligence that turned out to be misleadingly edited or manufactured. Officials as high-ranking as Secretary of State Colin Powell, who took the Administration’s case for war to the United Nations in the winter of 2003, were effectively deceived. From Bush on down, the Administration has studiedly declined to acknowledge that the premises of its war — nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, a link to al Qaeda, an imminent threat to the United States — turned out to be false. Those who were as much as called traitors because they asked for firmer proof before endorsing the invasion have been understandably reluctant to make nice now.

Since Bush began his second term in 2005 and rapidly fell in public esteem, the Democrats have practiced the politics of the vulture: patiently circling the dying prey. When Bush led off his second term with a proposal to privatize Social Security, the Democrats stood still and let the initiative wither as people realized they prefer security to risk in their own retirement. Although that was a creditable tactic, all things considered, Democratic responses to the Administration on foreign policy and domestic security have not been much clearer or more forthright. There is little basis for saying what the Democrats would do to distinguish themselves from Bush, were they to take power in 2006 and 2008. There is no clear Democratic position on Iraq, on the Middle East, domestic surveillance, or, for that matter, on the neglected bigger problems of foreign and domestic policy. Perhaps for this reason, as Republicans have become abysmally unpopular, the Democrats have made few gains. It is almost as if, denied recognition as a constructive opposition party, they have forgotten how to be one.

The reality, however, is worse and more ironic. The Democrats’ electoral appeal amounts implicitly to saying that they would not have done what Bush has: embroil the country in a bloody, unpopular, and increasingly disastrous war; unwittingly boost Iran’s regional prospects; give economic and diplomatic openings to China and other potential rivals; drive up the national debt with massive tax cuts and runaway spending, which includes almost no long-term public investment; and lose billions of dollars to corruption and incompetence abroad while giving away natural resources to preferred industries at home. Probably they would not have. In hindsight, the Clinton Administration seems a model of prudence and probity. A Gore Administration would have neither slashed taxes nor invaded Iraq. It would probably not have staffed the Federal Emergency Management Agency with incompetents nor been indifferent to New Orleans’ suffering, and so would have avoided much of the Katrina disaster that left Bush with a permanent stain.

But now the problem is a different one, which already in 2004 limited John Kerry’s ability to define a clear and consistent alternative to the President: picking up at the end of a long train of disasters, what do you do? Neither pressing on in Iraq nor leaving the country to work out its own bloody and potentially Islamist future is attractive, and anyway the Bush Administration already owns the first. The counter-intuitive idea of increasing American presence by tens of thousands of troops and trying to shut down the insurgency, which some conservatives are now pushing, would probably be political suicide as a Democratic campaign proposal. In domestic policy, where the Democrats are supposed to be strongest, huge deficits will tie their hands for perhaps a generation. Bill Clinton rolled back Ronald Reagan’s deficits with the help of the largest economic boom in decades. Democrats are unlikely to strike on such a deus ex machina twice. In other words, they have little to say because there may not be much they can do. There is a lot of ruin in a country, but this administration is squandering that as fast as everything else.

This is probably part of the reason that efforts by serious, smart, and responsible thinkers to redefine a Democratic agenda — and there have been many in the last two years — strike a nostalgic note. Democrats should rediscover the humble strength of cold war liberalism, writes Peter Beinart of the New Republic. No, they should rediscover the language of the common good that was lost in the 1960s, replies Michael Tomasky of the American Prospect. It is hard to imagine journalists better qualified to make these arguments with intelligence and nuance. But in politics, the relevance of ideas is usually bounded by the limits of the possible, and in the near term those appear troublingly narrow. The trend among many Democratic strategists is to pure tactics — winning more votes than the Republicans, by all means available, and then turning to the problems of governing and ideas. That must be right, as far as it goes; but that is not very far. It is no help in winning votes to be unable to say why you want to govern, and doing without ideas is a bleak necessity that is hard to make into a pragmatic virtue.

All of this has produced a farcical debate over whether American politics is bitterly divided, with some blithely declaring today’s political animosity unprecedented while others point out that, in substance, Americans are nearer consensus on most issues than at most times in history. The fact is that a significant minority of Americans despise President Bush, while another minority retains a fierce personal loyalty to him and feels contempt for his critics. What may be a narrow plurality is simply troubled and disappointed. None of this translates into wide and articulate disagreement over the substance of politics, because the space for political action that swept open after September 11 has drawn tighter with each misjudgment. The country is politically divided; it is just not divided over anything that politics can do much to cure, beyond replacing this president with someone serious about governing, who is willing to make small gains in terribly restrictive circumstances.

That is not much of a prescription. The United States is a resilient country, and history is surprising by its nature, so the best guess is that some change in circumstances somewhere down the road will shift this unhappy situation. If we knew what that change will be, we would already have reached it. But since September 11, America has entered a series of worsening political problems to which politics has been unable to give adequate answers. Here at the end of the beginning, there is not much good news.

Read the original Die Zeit article