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The Election and America’s Future

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, unleashed a worldwide outpouring of support and affection for the United States, a country that had traditionally done so much for others. When the dust cleared away, however, the Bush administration’s exceptionalist approach to international affairs was as rigid as before. In fact, its scope was dramatically broadened by the announcement of a new national security doctrine—unilateral preventive or preemptive war—to replace the longstanding policy of deterrence and containment.

While the world was still in shock from September 11, the United States action against the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the unrepentant host of al-Qaeda, received wide support as a legitimate act of self-defense. However, the evident determination of Washington to attack Iraq, allegedly to deal with Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, revived and intensified international concern and resentment. The fanciful notion that “the road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad” outraged the Muslim world and is proving to be an immensely costly fantasy.

The false rationale for the second Iraq war, and Washington’s openly expressed contempt for those who questioned it, has antagonized international opinion at a time when worldwide solidarity against fundamentalist terrorism is desperately needed. As the former counterterrorism coordinator, Richard Clarke, has written,

Rather than seeking to work with the majority in the Islamic world to mold Muslim opinion against the radicals’ values, we did exactly what al-Qaeda said we would do. We invaded and occupied an oil-rich Arab country that posed no threat to us, while paying scant time and attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. We delivered to al-Qaeda the greatest recruitment propaganda imaginable and made it difficult for friendly Islamic governments to be seen working closely with us.

The operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have also shown the practical limitations of the concept of unilateral preventive or preemptive war. They have shown that even the greatest military power in history has neither access to the reliable intelligence needed to provide a sound basis for such a war nor, for the moment at least, the capacity to deal decisively with determined guerrilla and terrorist resistance.

The stature and credibility of the United States are at their lowest ebb at a time when the world is greatly in need of wise and steady leadership on many vital global problems. It is also a time when the United States itself desperately needs the confidence and cooperation of other nations to deal with terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the related threat of rogue or dysfunctional states, and other emerging dangers.

To have drastically eroded, in less than four years, the position of respected international leadership built up by the United States over the past hundred years or more is an extraordinary achievement. With its existing worldview, the current administration cannot hope to restore that position. That would be one of the Herculean labors of its successor—if a successor willing to undertake them can be elected.


Austin, Texas

Anyone speeding down a freeway in the wrong direction will naturally begin to think of turning points. I don’t know if the 2004 election will be a turning point for America, but here are some thoughts about the direction toward which we ought to turn, with emphasis on policies that are abhorrent to Republicans and also rarely espoused by Democrats.

Here in Texas, I meet a good many economic conservatives. Most are nice people, not naturally inclined toward grinding the faces of the poor. But when I argue that we need to elect a president and Congress willing to raise taxes and spend more on searching for nuclear weapons in container ships, decreasing public school class sizes, subsidizing secular education in Islamic countries, rebuilding Afghanistan, expanding scientific research, helping the Russians to control their stocks of fissionable material, and providing universal access to health care (perhaps by offering Medicare to anyone who wants it), my conservative friends claim that we can afford these things only if we first “grow the economy” by cutting taxes. They (and many liberals) are in the grip of an economic fallacy, that a dollar spent on consumer goods stimulates the economy more than a dollar spent on public goods. They actually believe that holding government spending down by not hiring enough policemen and patent inspectors is the way to fight unemployment!

Ironically, cutting taxes on high incomes and large legacies has weakened a unique aspect of American life that conservatives ought to prize. By making the deduction for charitable donations less attractive, tax cuts have hurt private foundations, universities, museums, orchestras, hospitals, and churches, which although indirectly supported by government through tax deductions, nevertheless operate without government control.

We must restore steeply progressive income taxes and cut payroll taxes, in order to reverse the growth of poverty and narrow the gap between the real net hourly earnings of most people and the richest few. Even more important is keeping the inheritance tax and closing its loopholes, to inhibit development of an aristocracy of inherited wealth. To restore the dignity as well as the prosperity of working people, Congress needs to give workers some legal right to their jobs, prohibit the replacement of striking workers, and repeal the worst features of the Taft-Hartley law. No one should imagine that the economy necessarily will be healthy if only unemployment rates can be lowered. No class of Americans has ever had unemployment as low as blacks in the antebellum South.

One other kind of tax needs to be increased, the tax on gasoline. We need to get gasoline prices up permanently without sending more money to the Saudis, to provide an incentive for fuel efficiency and alternatives. The worst possible policy would be to try to hold gasoline prices down by drilling in Alaska. A few decades from now, when the only large oil reserves left in the world will be in the Middle East, the oil in Alaska can be a precious asset, our ultimate strategic reserve.

Part of the cost of the public goods we need can be borne by cutting back on those we don’t need. The President’s vastly expensive “New Vision” for manned space flight serves no economic, military, or scientific purpose. The anti-missile defense now being deployed at great cost will have only a dubious effectiveness against the most unlikely nuclear threats, and concededly no effectiveness at all against the one peril that can destroy our country, a massive Russian missile launch by mistake.

John Kerry’s public statements have not revealed how he would change direction on these issues. Maybe that is good strategy—what do I know about getting elected? Of one thing I am sure: we can look for no help from George Bush.

President Bush’s reelection would be disastrous in another respect. The present Supreme Court has attacked the constitutional powers of Congress, striking down legislation that would protect individuals against unconstitutional state action. The vacancies on the Court that are likely to open soon create an opportunity to reverse these decisions. Four more years of a Bush administration will tip the balance of the Court toward extremist justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, whom Bush especially admires.

After all this, you would think that I would have no doubt about my vote in November, but I have one remaining concern that might keep me from voting for Kerry. Somehow there has grown up a correlation between liberalism and anti-Zionism in both Europe and America: a tendency for the same politicians, academics, performers, and journalists who take a liberal stand on domestic issues reflexively to take the Arab side in disputes between Arabs and Israelis. Kerry’s statements and voting record show no signs of anti-Zionism, with just one exception known to me, his speech at the Council on Foreign Relations naming James Baker of all people as someone he might send to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians—a possibility he subsequently rejected.

Nevertheless, I can’t help worrying about the foreign policy of a liberal administration if Kerry is elected. This concern is deepened by the fear that, as radical Islamic terrorism continues to plague us, there will be a growing temptation to appease Muslims either by withdrawing support for Israel, or by making complete withdrawal from the West Bank a condition for this support, leaving Israel vulnerable to the sort of attack launched by Arab states in 1948, 1967, and 1973. Yielding to this temptation would weaken the cause of secular democracy, and permanently stain our country’s honor. But I probably will vote for Kerry anyway, for on this issue I don’t trust Bush either.


Evanston, Illinois

What was the last election with great stakes in play? I suppose 1968. It was similar to this race, but (as it were) upside down. Both involve the problem of admitting a tragic mistake. The mistake in 1968 was a belief that where the French had failed in a long and committed colonial adventure in Indochina, we could replace them and succeed. We could do so, we thought, because we were not colonialists but supporters of indigenous freedom against world communism. We came with “clean hands.”

The current mistake is a belief that we could enter the Mideast with clean hands as supporters of democratic values in the whole region, in opposition to world terrorism. We would do so with Donald Rumsfeld’s swift military in-and-out operation to put friends like Ahmed Chalabi in charge and withdraw—just as we could use Robert McNamara’s “surgical” and “counterinsurgent” operations to keep friends like Nguyen Van Thieu in charge of Vietnam before withdrawing. Both mistakes reflected an ignorance of the respective regions, a false view of America’s reception by those being “helped,” and an underestimation of American resistance to longer-term commitment than was first proposed.

Our election is an upside-down version of the 1968 one because the incumbent party was then most disposed to admit the mistake of Vietnam, though it had led us into the quagmire. President Kennedy’s closest advisers had egged on President Johnson to sustain the war—but it was proving unsustainable, as Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal, the Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy presidential bids, and Hubert Humphrey’s wobbling demonstrated. Had Humphrey won, his party would not have supported vigorous extension of the war—it had already admitted the mistake. Nixon, by contrast, though he vaguely referred to a plan for ending the war, had constituencies not disposed to that course. The anti-Communist rationale for the war was so strong that even when Nixon achieved his opening to China, Republicans who opposed that move said they would not stay with him unless he continued his commitment to the war—as he did throughout his first term. Only after many more casualties on both sides, and no accomplishment of our war aims, was the mistake finally (indirectly) admitted.

Today it is the incumbent party that refuses to admit the mistake made in the preemptive war on Iraq. Its ideological stake in the venture resembles that of the out party in 1968, while the current out party, despite Kerry’s wobbling of the Humphrey sort, has a cumulative opposition to the war like that of the Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy insurgents in 1968 (their equivalents now being Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, and Dennis Kucinich). What will be done in Iraq remains unclear for both parties; but a sane policy must begin from a grasp of the mistake that was made, an understanding of which the Republicans seem incapable.

Will it take us decades and thousands of deaths to see our error in Iraq, as it did to see our error in Vietnam? It may well do so under another Republican term. No one in it has resigned, been fired, repented, or apologized. The air of rectitude is bolstered as the blunders become clearer. What is generally true of presidential elections is imperatively true of this one—that the part of wisdom is to vote the party, not the man. Whether you like George Bush or John Kerry is beside the point. One must vote for the constituencies that are at the core of the candidate’s campaign and future ability to govern. That means, in the case of the current administration, that a vote for the Republicans is a vote for Halliburton and contractors in the oil world, for a Rumsfeld policy of destroying the military, for a Cheney vision of unilateral action in a world of nations dismissed as cowards or fools, for an economy based on tax cuts, deficits, and resistance to social programs.

Most elections are referendums on the people in place, and that should be the overwhelming criterion this time. What will four more Bush years do to our relations abroad, our armed forces, our environment, our economy, our civil rights, our separation of church and state? Were it not so tragic in its toll of the dead and maimed on both sides of the conflict, our war in Iraq would seem a comedy of endless errors, featuring such Keystone Kops as George (Bring ‘Em On) Bush, Karl (Mission Accomplished) Rove, Condi (Mushroom Cloud) Rice, Tony (Forty-Five Minutes) Blair, Dick (Prague Meeting) Cheney, Don (Stuff Happens) Rumsfeld, George (Slam Dunk) Tenet, Paul (Shinseki Is Wild) Wolfowitz, Colin (Mobile Labs) Powell, Ahmed (Iraqis Love Me) Chalabi, Doug (Oil Will Rebuild It) Feith, Ken (Cakewalk) Adelman, Richard (Ahmed Told Me) Perle, and other supporting players. What will the future say of us if we continue to reward this crew?

K. ANTHONY APPIAH teaches philosophy at Princeton. His new book, The Ethics of Identity, will be published in January.

RUSSELL BAKER is a former correspondent for The New York Times and the author of Looking Back, recently published in paperback.

IAN BURUMA‘s most recent book is Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, coauthored with Avishai Margalit. He is Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College.

MARK DANNER‘s new book, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, will collect his recent pieces on Iraq in these pages, as well as the full texts of the recent official reports on American use of torture. It will be published later this month.

RONALD DWORKIN is a Professor at both NYU and University College, London.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF is Director of the Carr Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School. His latest book is The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror.

ANTHONY LEWIS is a former columnist for The New York Times.

NORMAN MAILER‘s latest book is Modest Gifts.

EDMUND S. MORGAN‘s most recent book is The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America.

THOMAS POWERS is the author, most recently, of Intelligence Wars.

ALAN RYAN, Warden of New College, Oxford, has taught and written about democratic theory and practice since 1963.

BRIAN URQUHART is a former Undersecretary-General of the United Nations.

STEVEN WEINBERG, a winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, is the author of Glory and Terror: The Growing Nuclear Danger.

GARRY WILLS is Adjunct Professor of History at Northwestern and the author of the forthcoming Saint Augustine’s Conversion.

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