It’s a loaded question in America right now: Did our foreign policy — past or present — play a role in provoking the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.?

Just to raise the possibility is to invite invective, as demonstrated by broadsides published in organs as disparate as Newsweek, The Nation and the Washington Post. Transgressors are denounced as members of the ”Hate America First“ crowd or, worse, as moral lepers incapable of empathizing with the slaughter of thousands of civilians.

Yet, fortunately for us and despite the bellicose rhetoric from the White House, the Bush administration has so far been wrestling mightily with just that question. Already, some of the more inflammatory elements of U.S. foreign policy are under review or have been radically transformed.

Most obvious is the new interest in building alliances by entertaining the trade and diplomatic concerns of nations around the globe, issues the administration previously ignored. More telling is the official talk of nation-building — tacit acknowledgment that we need to invest in the world around us, rather than simply profit from it.

On October 2, Bush even declared his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state for the first time. It quickly dropped out of the news cycle, but still, it was striking, interpreted among some as a direct response to one of the few specific issues Osama bin Laden enunciated in his brief bill of particulars.

But how far are U.S. leaders willing to bend to secure the cooperation of longtime enemies such as Iran, with its 581-mile border with Afghanistan? And how well will we listen to the concerns of fence sitters such as Indonesia, which warned on Sunday of ”explosive“ consequences if our bombing campaign persists into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins November 17?

In part, the answer must lie in how deeply we consider the question nobody wants to hear. Americans don‘t have to throw in with the Taliban to accept the notion that bin Laden has won the support of millions with his horrific jihad. If our government hopes to isolate bin Laden and his network, it needs to understand his appeal and work to defuse it.

Along the way, we’ll have to work through the culture war at home. Lance Morrow got off the first salvo — in Time, on September 14 — calling for ”ruthless indignation“ that would defeat any slide into ”corruptly thoughtful relativism.“

Susan Sontag answered in The New Yorker, on September 20. Denouncing ”self-righteous drivel and outright deception,“ she demanded ”acknowledgment that this was an attack . . . on the world‘s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.“

Denunciations of her came from across the political spectrum. Centrist pundit Charles Krauthhamer, in the Washington Post, censured Sontag specifically as ”morally obtuse,“ while in The Nation, Christopher Hitchens excoriated ”much of the left“ as ”soft on crime and soft on fascism.“

The backlash shows no signs of abating. On October 14, left-wing analyst and Weekly columnist Marc Cooper recoiled in the L.A. Times from ”that odious whiff of ’chickens coming home to roost,‘“ while, in last week’s Newsweek, Jonathan Alter announced that ”a sizeable chunk of what passes for the left is already knee-deep in ignorant and dangerous appeasement.“

Of course, it‘s not just the media that are closing ranks against the infidels within. They’ve joined a mighty chorus in proclaiming that the sheer enormity of the assault leaves no room for dispute. Rudy Giuliani drew only applause with his blunt October 1 address to the United Nations. ”This is not a time for further study or vague directives,“ he declared. ”We are right and they are wrong.“

It‘s the flipside of the same urge that has driven the resurgent patriotism and flying of the flag, the same impulse that brought baseball stadiums across the country to replace ”Take Me Out to the Ballgame“ with ”God Bless America“ as the anthem of the seventh-inning stretch. Shaken by sudden insecurity, Americans feel the need to reassure each other of our fundamental righteousness. President Bush struck a chord with his astonishment at the depth of hatred expressed in the suicide attacks. ”I’m amazed . . . that people would hate us,“ he said in one of his most candid exclamations to date. ”Because I know how good we are.“

It‘s dangerous to take all that cant too seriously. We can’t afford to ignore a wake-up call on the scale of September 11. Painful as it may be to consider, the fact remains that U.S. actions have repercussions, a dynamic we continue to ignore at our peril.

It‘s not just enemies of the state who hold this view, but people like Philip C. Wilcox Jr., who served for three years as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Wilcox asserted, ”The most important deficiency in U.S. counterterrorism policy has been the failure to address the root causes of terrorism.“ That would require ”new departures in foreign policy,“ which means ”devoting far greater resources to support a more engaged, cooperative and influential American role abroad.“

The question now is how far Bush and his advisers are willing to entertain that thinking. So far they’ve cobbled together a global coalition to stage a collective police action against an international force that threatens even Islamic states with terror and assassination. But as soon as our new friends divine that we‘ve reverted to past patterns of dictating the terms of engagement, we could well find ourselves back where we started — isolated and under fire.

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