While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down
–Edgar Allan Poe
Now is the season of our antidepressants, of Prozac and Paxil and whatever it takes to get through the night. Not that the anthrax assaults should be terrifying unto themselves: They seem more the work of a Ted Kaczynski–wannabe than of the terrorist network that brought down New York‘s proud towers. But as any decent dramatist will tell you, a shocking murder in Act I can put an audience so on edge that it will jump at any stray cough in Act II. And in our current condition, who’s to say what germs those stray coughs carry?
Still, if anyone is fool enough to want my medicalgeopolitical advice, it would be to skip the Cipro — an antibiotic that may be useful in the case of anthrax exposure — and go straight to the Paxil, since the chief effect of both is to calm the nerves, and the antidepressants tend to do that better than the antibiotics. At times like these, we pundits are asked to weigh in on all manner of questions that demand the sheerest guesswork on our part. A few days ago, a radio interviewer asked me whether I thought Osama bin Laden was really conveying coded messages in his broadcast remarks. It is bad form to say “How the hell would I know?!” on the electronic media, so I soft-pedaled my cluelessness. For all I know, George W. Bush may be conveying coded messages in his remarks, which could explain what to the naked ear seems simple incoherence.
Yet when W‘s been on message in the past few weeks, he’s been surprisingly good — illustrating the not-quite-maxim that a globalist is a nationalist who‘s been mugged by an international terror network. The terror attacks have forced Bush to repudiate nearly every aspect of his pre–September 11 nutzoid unilateralist foreign policy. Before the attacks, his was an administration that had no interest in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian settlement; that stood alone in its opposition to global treaties and protocols (including, let us remember, the ban on chemical and biological warfare); that viewed a missile defense in the sky as a substitute for having to cultivate decent relations with other nations. Now, Bush has begun to push for new Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and reaffirmed the support the Clinton administration gave to a Palestinian state, while reaching out to other nations and leaders whom he had hitherto airily dismissed.
The administration’s conduct of the war has similarly been shaped by the kind of complexities that the Star Wars fantasists looked forward to dispensing with altogether. The facts on the ground in Afghanistan — the absence of the kind of infrastructure to which our air forces could lay waste — have precluded a Curtis LeMay bomb-‘em-back-to-the-Stone-Age offensive. The need to build an anti-Taliban coalition and to keep the Middle East from a further turn toward militant Islamic fundamentalism have impelled us to target our strikes carefully, though any claims to surgical precision are ludicrous. And the need to win friends and influence people throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds has compelled the administration to assert repeatedly our commitment to tolerance and pluralism. In the opening phases of the operation, much of the administration’s response looks figuratively on target. (Whether it‘s literally on target is too early to tell.)
Far from everything about the New Bush Presidency is commendable, of course; far from everything about it is new. But liberals shouldn’t hesitate to applaud the decent aspects of the New W, not least because he lifted them from liberals. Proportionality in military action has been a liberal perspective ever since Vietnam; and it was liberals who chastised the belligerent isolationism that characterized the administration before September 11. More broadly, the warnings against discriminating against Arab-Americans and Muslims that the administration, Rudy Giuliani and the network news anchors all sounded right after the attack weren‘t largely the result of a12 calculated geo-strategy. They were a measure, rather, of how deeply the civil rights revolution has transformed American thought and action.
The administration’s transformation on matters global is far from complete. It has not sought formal support for our action from the U.N. Security Council, for instance, though the other permanent members (Britain, France, Russia and China) are supportive, and though such approval would further legitimate and somewhat de-nationalize our offensive. On the globalization front, the administration actually invokes the September 11 attacks as an argument to give the president fast-track authority in trade negotiations — essentially, the ability to craft trade treaties without substantial labor and environmental standards. As non sequiturs go, this one is a global lulu. Whatever it is the world needs in the aftermath of the New York holocaust, more laissez-faire economics ain‘t it.
Indeed, it’s worth recalling that our largest economic interaction with a predominantly Muslim nation in recent years was with Indonesia during the East Asian financial crisis a few years back, when the International Monetary Fund, at our prompting and in the name of investor confidence, forced that country to make draconian cutbacks in spending. The result was a stunningly deep recession in the nation that‘s home to more Muslims than any other. Rather than push for a policy that only further enshrines the power of the same banking community that devastated Indonesia, the administration should be pushing for a new global financial order that allocates credit more transparently and democratically. Hell, the Democrats should be pushing for that.
But it’s on the home front where the administration has truly been performing the hesitation waltz — moving gingerly to the center only to step back reflexively to the right. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the Bush White House — which right up to that moment had been even more relentlessly anti-statist than Reagan‘s — recognized the need for both an active and responsive government and for meeting the Democrats halfway in crafting a domestic response to the war. Perhaps just as remarkably, public opinion on the role of the public sector also underwent an overnight transformation. Suddenly, not one-third of the public but two-thirds said it trusted the government — a figure not seen since the ’60s, when the Vietnam War began to erode the government‘s credibility.
Despite the public’s common-sensical turn toward government, the Bush administration has recently been turning every which way. Federalizing airport security — a system currently farmed out to private-sector contractors who almost everywhere pay their screeners the minimum wage — makes a good deal of sense if you want to upgrade the position to one that genuinely provides security. Though it has passed the Senate, the airport-security bill has run smack-dab into a wall of Texan ideology in the House: The administration and House GOP honchos Dick Armey and Tom DeLay all say that the proposal must be greatly weakened, that expanding the government is, in effect, a greater evil than letting the occasional terrorist slip through. (Texas Republicans have also sought to block efforts to strengthen the government‘s oversight of banks, the better to detect money laundering of the kind the bin Laden network practiced. Phil Gramm in the Senate and the dynamic duo of Armey and DeLay in the House have opposed this legislation at every turn, to the point where a non-Texas Republican — Iowa Senator Charles Grassley — called the House leaders “unpatriotic.”)
More generally, the administration and House Republicans seem to view this war as a continuation of Republican economics by other means. The bailout of the airlines sailed through Congress without any accompanying language providing aid to unemployed airline employees — with Democratic acquiescence due to the urgency of saving the airlines. (Time will tell if the Democrats were snookered.) House Republicans are backing an economic-stimulus package that will do precious little for the economy, but will throw yet more money at the rich. On a party-line vote, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill that cuts the capital-gains tax and that will direct $21 billion to global finance companies like Citicorp and AIG, which do much of their business overseas. With the economy going south, however, there are a limited number of capital gains on which taxes can be cut. A real economic-stimulus measure would not only help low-income workers, as the bill does, but also provide special assistance to workers in the travel and tourism industries, and, as economist James K. Galbraith has suggested, provide bloc grants to the states so they don’t have to make the kind of cutbacks in spending they are currently confronting. (Gray Davis has just suggested a 15 percent budget cut may be necessary in California.) When states cut budgets, the economic impacts — on the poor, on school construction, on employment levels — can be devastating.
In the world according to Tom DeLay, the right way to deal with the anthrax terror most likely isn‘t to bolster our public-health services but to entrust this to the private sector — say, the pest-control industry, where DeLay labored before he went to Congress. Let’s hope the Bushmen aren‘t thinking that way, too. If they are, maybe you should get some Cipro after all.