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The Election and America’s Future

The next president will confront an American public grown tired of a war whose rationale has disappeared along with the weapons of mass destruction their leaders warned them so urgently about, and whose ending has receded into an ever more cloudy future. It is no surprise that the fundamentalist George Bush responded to the cataclysm of September 11 by rallying Americans to a threat he found in the realm not of politics or strategy but of metaphysics. Terrorists were “evildoers” and as such called forth a religious war in which other nations were “either with us or with the terrorists.” Such rhetoric falls easily on American ears and it is no mystery why this land’s leaders have had recourse to it again and again, from the “City on the Hill” of John Winthrop, to the “evil empire” of Ronald Reagan, and, in between, the starkly divided world set out in the Manichaean divisions of the Truman Doctrine of April 1947. The call to arms against “the evildoers,” the beseeching of the country to rise up and defend itself against “the axis of evil”—presidents use such terms because they are simple, universally understood, and persuasive: Who, after all, could object to the need to fight Evil?

The danger has always been that the urge toward metaphysical simplicity eventually obliterates the careful weighing of interests and risks that must guide a great power in its foreign policy. Osama bin Laden, in turning his sights from the “near enemies” ruling in Cairo and Riyadh to the “far enemy” symbolized by New York’s mighty towers, had wanted nothing more than an ideological war; he had the great good luck to choose to attack a born-again president and advocate of “moral clarity” who not only was more than willing to give him one but to subsume under its banner a bloody diversion in a complicated, divided country that had up to then been irrelevant to the jihadist cause.

For better or worse, President Bush has now set the terms of the debate, and the political contest now underway, animated by a kind of fear and political anxiety not seen since the darkest days of the cold war, seems fated to be conducted according to those terms. When the rhetoric of crusade dominates public discourse, political leaders find themselves trapped, like characters in a mythological drama that long predates and powerfully overshadows them; Lyndon Johnson, unable to withdraw from and thus “lose” Vietnam the way his Democratic predecessor had “lost” China, came to understand this; John Kerry, if he manages to gain his place in the White House, may well find himself struggling to escape the same trap, caught in the metaphysical prison his predecessor constructed for him and hemmed in by ideologically fierce political opponents determined to make him suffer for any attempt he might make to break free.

The war in Iraq, launched in the glamorous cause of ideological transformation, has now settled down into something bloody, murderous, and crude, fought on behalf of a people who are increasingly weary of its costs and bewildered by its stakes. There is no safe or easy way out, and the winner of this election, like the winner in 1968, will find his administration dogged by it from first day to last.


New York City

This election will decide whether a radical politics succeeds in the United States. We have been governed, for many decades, from somewhere in the broad center of opinion rather than through a winner-take-all contest of extremes. We have kept religion out of politics so that people will not be alienated from their government because of their beliefs; and our foreign policy has, for the most part, been grounded in bipartisan unity, not partisan politics. The Bush administration has replaced every part of that centrist philosophy with a strategy of ideological partisanship aimed at two groups. It subscribes to the principles and causes of the religious right and it is convinced that Bush can be reelected by giving that particularly zealous minority reason to vote in great numbers. It relies, in that hope, on the support it has bought from powerful mass media and business groups by sponsoring huge and economically perilous tax cuts, and by virtually abandoning past bipartisan initiatives to protect the environment and improve public safety.

The alliance with the religious right has already proved a serious threat to America’s commitment to social inclusiveness. Bush urges amending the Constitution to outlaw gay marriage; he calls for federal support for religious projects, and condemns millions of Americans to unnecessary suffering by forbidding stem cell research. Religious fundamentalists want above all to staff the courts with judges who share their views, and he has pandered to that wish by nominating to the federal courts only lawyers distinguished for their intransigence on issues of abortion, race, civil rights, workers’ protection, gay rights, religion, or the environment, many of them embarrassingly unqualified for judicial office. Senate Democrats have so far blocked some of the worst of these nominations by filibusters, but they may not be able or willing to continue to do so if Bush is reelected while protesting that tactic. Bush could and would then fill the federal courts with whatever reactionary judges he thought most pleasing to what he regards as his “core constituency.”

The crucial court, of course, is the Supreme Court. America is very lucky to have survived one Bush administration without a single new Supreme Court appointment, but a second term without more than one new appointment seems unlikely. Even during the last few years, when the Court has been dominated by relatively conservative justices, it has done more than any other national institution to protect American principles of equal citizenship and individual fairness. It has refused to abandon affirmative action; it has insisted on rights for homosexuals; and it has held that even aliens whom the President declared to be enemies of the United States are entitled to the due process of law. But each of these important victories was won by one or two votes, and each was denounced by the fundamentalists Bush has assured of his support.

The three most conservative justices—Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas—voted against each of those decisions and have also made it plain that they would vote, whenever they have the chance, to overrule the Court’s earlier decisions recognizing women’s abortion rights, decisions the fundamentalists hate most of all; and Bush has all but promised that he would appoint new justices who would vote with them.

New justices would presumably also join the conservatives’ campaign to transfer power from the federal government to the states, so that a new Court might conceivably make environmental regulation—and perhaps even, in the worst case, antidiscrimination legislation for local business—matters of state option rather than federal jurisdiction. A Bush Court would probably have an entire generation in which to destroy constitutional rights that the Court has built up over decades, rights that have helped to define Americans’ sense of their own public values. Even if we came to our senses after a second Bush term, that terrible damage would have been done and could not soon be undone.

Of course judicial appointments are not the only danger in Bush’s alliance with right-wing religion, or even the worst. The terrorists want their battle with the United States to be seen as a religious war in which we fight not for justice or safety but for our god against theirs, and almost everything the administration has done since September 11 has helped them to sustain that claim. The administration’s incompetent war in Iraq is not only immoral because it has killed thousands for no legitimate purpose, but it is also stunningly counterproductive because it has convinced much of the world that America’s ideology, not the terrorists’, is the gravest threat to peace. The administration defends its military actions in theological terms whenever it can—Bush once called the war on terrorism a crusade—and America sometimes treats its prisoners with the special humiliation and cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition.

These policies are as divisive domestically as they are in the larger world. Bush has sacrificed shared pride in American values—a unity that was itself a source of protection in danger—for the militancy of fundamentalist religion. His reelection would be frightening not just for the damage a second term would do but because his radical political strategy would then seem, to future Republican candidates, a new template for electoral success.


Cambridge, Massachusetts

With his speech at New York University on September 20, John Kerry finally came up with a position on Iraq. It came late, and no one knows whether it will work, but at least this country will now have the discussion on Iraq that it needs.

It’s a debate, first of all, about the facts, about how bad the situation there actually is. For most Kerry supporters, this is no longer an interesting question. The situation is, was, and always will be a catastrophe, with American soldiers dying daily, Iraqis being butchered, aid workers kidnapped, construction workers beheaded. All these facts are true, and Kerry has begun to win some support simply by insisting on the grimness of the facts and by pointing out that Bush and Cheney’s optimism borders on the delusional.

The problem is what a Democratic administration should do about these facts. A lot of people are voting for Kerry in the expectation that he can extricate America from Iraq faster than Bush. His New York speech addressed these expectations. He said that if the future president

would bring in more help from other countries to provide resources and forces…train the Iraqis to provide their own security…develop a reconstruction plan that brings real benefits to the Iraqi people…and take the steps necessary to hold credible elections next year…we could begin to withdraw US forces starting next summer and realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years.

Anyone in his right mind wants Americans out of Iraq as soon as possible; the question is whether the US can withdraw before Iraq becomes more stable. In May of this year, an ABC/Washington Post survey found that 53 percent of Democrats said the US “should withdraw its military forces from Iraq…even if that means civil order is not restored there.” This not-so-secret desire is based, at least for some Democrats, on the assumptions that the American occupation is the principal target of the insurgents and the American troop presence is actually making the security situation worse. If they were withdrawn, the argument goes, Iraqis would have fewer Americans to shoot at and might even stop shooting each other. The problem is that scaling back the American presence prematurely, i.e., within the next year to eighteen months, simply transfers all the costs of our many failures onto Iraqi shoulders. It seems to me most likely that more Iraqis will die if we leave than if we stay on until a democratically elected government can take over.

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