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The Looming Fights That Unity Conceals

November 04, 2001|ERIC COHEN | Eric Cohen, former managing editor of The Public Interest, is a resident fellow at the New America Foundation

WASHINGTON — There are two basic theories about how Sept. 11 will change U.S. politics and culture.

The first one contends that the terrorist attacks have transformed everything. Old debates and loyalties are now irrelevant. The red-and-blue divide of the 2000 elections is obsolete. The culture wars are over--or at least on permanent hold. The frivolousness of the 1990s--the age of Clintonism, stock options and reality TV--has given way to a new sense of reality, seriousness and national unity. Politics have been replaced by patriotism.

The second theory holds that Sept. 11 and the war against terrorism will bring old divides into sharper focus. The fault lines within conservatism and liberalism, and within the divided culture as a whole, will grow. Foreign-policy disputes that once seemed abstract and insignificant when peace and prosperity were taken for granted will suddenly matter a great deal.

Which of the two theories is correct is impossible to say, but both suggest a new political moment, even a new chapter in American history.

It is certainly a paradoxical moment. More and more Americans are turning to God and religion for guidance in this time of crisis, yet there is a renewed sense that religion has only a limited place in public life, that what separates America from the Taliban is our nation's tradition of tolerance for different beliefs and different worldviews. Even as Americans reflect on the dark side of modern technology and its powers of destruction, they demand more military technology and more Cipro, better weapons and better vaccines. And while Americans are embracing an expanded role for the federal government, they cannot ignore the unpleasant fact that the government is at least partly responsible for the nation's lack of readiness in the first place, and that its performance, so far, in the anthrax scare does not inspire great confidence for the future. At the same time, those on the right and left, who for different reasons have spent the last decades calling America immoral or unjust, must now become born-again patriots or become politically obsolete.

At least this much seems likely: As the war against terrorism abroad heats up, and especially if the international anti-terrorism coalition grows unstable or if U.S. soldiers suffer significant casualties, unity at home will begin to fracture. Already, there are fights over federalizing airport security. There will be fights about military strategy and military goals; fights about what constitutes victory and success; fights about how much additional power the federal government should have and how that power should be used; and fights about the justice of America's cause.

The exact shape of these disagreements and the coalitions that will grow out of them is hard to say. But at least four political constituencies can be envisioned:

* Attack-and-confront unilateralists: This group believes that the U.S. must greatly intensify the war effort by sending ground troops into Afghanistan, facing off with Iraq and hiking the military budget far beyond what President Bush has called for. It believes America should act alone if necessary, and that some of our supposed coalition partners are themselves terrorist-harboring states. It is willing to expand government as needed and sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of national security. And it believes America's role in the world is "just hegemony," which means not only winning the war in Afghanistan, but also forcing regime changes in states that threaten the U.S. and that deny basic human rights to their own people.

This group's leading figures are Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, intellectuals and former government officials Richard N. Perle and William Kristol, and Sen. John McCain.

* Bomb-and-retreat isolationists: This group believes America should bomb whomever it needs to in the Middle East and the Asian subcontinent, then get out of that part of the world entirely. It wants to erect a "fortress America" and build a foreign policy that lets nations like India and Pakistan, or Israel and the Palestinians, fight among themselves. So far, this group has remained politically quiet. But it is alive on conservative television and talk radio, and could emerge as a political force if America is attacked again.

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