War, The Health Of The State

It is just 10 years since the senate barely passed, 52-47, the resolution authorizing the use of force to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Tom Daschle, now majority leader; Joseph Biden, now chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Carl Levin, now chairman of the Armed Services Committee, were among the 47. It is just seven months since a commission chaired by former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman said "a direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century."

It is just three weeks since the nation's political arguments were about micromatters such as apportioning blame for an economic slowdown that had not yet produced even one quarter of contraction. And about competitive worship of a bookkeeping fiction (the Social Security trust fund). And about who can sue whom, and where, and for how much (the patient's bill of rights). Time flies.

The political class has responded well to the crisis, which has obliterated both parties' plans by scrambling what political operatives call "the issue matrix." For the first time in 10 years, foreign policy preoccupies the public. That may be particularly disorienting to Democrats, who have prospered when stressing domestic issues. Now many matters acquire a national-security aspect. Are several Democratic senators still eager to filibuster against the House-passed plan for limited energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Democrats probably must shelve any plans they had to mobilize their base in 2002 by waving the bloody shirt of Florida--Bush the illegitimate president. Such talk about a commander in chief sending Americans in harm's way would not be well received. And there probably will be diminished political mileage in portraying the president as a syntactically challenged bumpkin.

Republicans may now be largely immunized against blame for whatever economic difficulties the country experiences in the next year. However, they are most comfortable when talking about restraining the growth of government, and they are about to relearn the truth of the axiom that war is the health of the state. From missile defense to new offensive and intelligence capabilities, the Bush administration wants more, and more muscular, government.

In addition, this crisis will require Republicans to make ideological adjustments about the proper scope as well as the scale of government. The coming infusion of public money into the air-transportation system will not be the only way in which a Republican administration is going to preside over a further blurring of the line between the public and private sectors.

When assessments--and recriminations--begin concerning how September 11 happened, there will be hard questions asked about the stewardship of the nation's security in recent years. To take just one example, the Los Angeles Times reports that the largest intelligence agency, the National Security Agency, had its budget, which is enveloped in secrecy, substantially cut in the 1990s. This has had a crippling effect on an agency that reportedly every day captures more data than is contained in the Library of Congress. Was there information that might have warned of the September 11 attacks--information that went unsifted and untranslated?

One small sign of change in America's civic culture is this: Poll takers report a sharp drop in what they call the "refusal rate"--the number of persons who decline to answer polling questions. This suggests an eagerness to be involved, and may be a harbinger of unusually intense interest in next year's struggle for control of Congress.

Will the trauma of terrorism tend to freeze the competitive balance between the parties? Not necessarily. In the 1942 off-year elections, just 11 months after Pearl Harbor, the president's party lost 55 House seats and nine senators. But on domestic issues the country had been swinging strongly toward the Republicans since 1938. Roosevelt won in 1940, with Europe in flames, primarily because of his foreign-policy experience. And with the large exception of the Battle of Midway, 1942 was a year of discouraging news. Given the nature of the twilight war Bush has announced, 2002 could be a discouraging year, or at least one intensely frustrating to this famously impatient nation.

A huge imponderable is how, and for how long, this trauma, and what promises to be a long, often shadowy war against what Rudman calls "spongy" targets, will affect American realism. Last century America fought a "war to end all wars." That was many wars ago. Today's president, his rhetorical rheostat turned way up, vows that the current military campaign will "rid the world of evil." By such clarion calls are nations summoned to strenuous exertions. There will be time enough to reflect on the deeper meanings of September 11, including the resilience, indeed the permanence, of evil.

All people, but particularly today's Americans, who are mild in temperament and amnesiac in tendency, resist the moral of Albert Camus's novel "The Plague," the 1947 parable about a city ravaged by an epidemic. At the novel's conclusion, as jubilant crowds celebrate the end of the infestation, Camus's protagonist, Dr. Rieux, "remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know... that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city."

America, whose birth was midwived by a war and whose history has been punctuated by many more, is the bearer of great responsibilities and the focus of myriad resentments. Which is why for America, there are only two kinds of years, the war years and the interwar years.