I'm not as pessimistic as you and many progressives seem to be regarding how Bush is going to come out of this. The administration has promised the moon in the last few days, and I don't see how they can possibly deliver. The notion bandied about by Paul Wolfowitz on Thursday that the US is going to "end" regimes that harbor or support terrorists is absurd; Lawrence Eagleburger's call to "level Kabul" on Wednesday was an exercise in hysterical jingoism.
Any surge in Bush's legitimacy may be very short lived: remember Bush Sr., who had 90% popularity ratings after the Gulf War but then lost in 1992? Of course, the fact that this is an attack on the US and involves the death of 5,000 US civilians makes the situation different, but perhaps in ways that cut against Bush even more. In general, it's very hard to see how this is going to play out over the next six months to a year. In the short run, I don't think too much should be read into people "rallying behind the president" beyond simple reactions of grief, outrage, confusion, shock, disruption of insulated routines, and a desire to show unity with one's perceived community.
The declaration of "war against terrorism" and all the calls to "eradicate terrorism" sound very similar to the rhetoric of "the war against drugs," and over the next few months I think many people--if things go well, the majority--will see that the situation, like the situation with narco-criminal networks, is much more intractable and difficult to "solve" than the rhetoric suggests. After all, the use of violence against non-combatants to advance political objectives is as old as warfare itself, and the goal of "eradicating terrorism" is basically equivalent to demanding the end of all warfare. Perhaps in the long run, this catastrophe will lead to a wider recognition of this, and to a more realistic and open debate in the country about globalization, US sponsorship and arming of repressive regimes, etc. This is the best case scenario, which may not be the most likely outcome. Of course, in the worst case scenario, we're headed into a highly jingoistic and repressive period, perhaps an international conflagration. But I don't think that's necessarily the most likely outcome either.
After all, bin Laden is in Afghanistan, a medieval, war-torn, nightmarish concentration camp and wasteland of wrecked lives and traumatized refugees, and rooting out networks in such areas is no mean feat, even if you overthrow the ruling regime. As to the situation in the Middle East and South Asia, it's hard to see how the situation can get better in the short run. Certainly, it would be a great thing if somehow the Taliban fell, but the fact is that the networks around bin Laden have cells throughout the region, and almost certainly at various levels of the Saudi regime itself. This is almost certainly the reason the Saudi regime resisted allowing the US government to participate in investigations of the bombings against American military targets in Saudi Arabia in the mid-90s, and quickly beheaded suspects before they could be interviewed by US agents. Instability, violence, oil embargoes, regime collapse, and perhaps some really horrible tragedy in Israel/Palestine may be in the offing. But a quick, Gulf War-type "solution"? No way. Even if they were able to topple the Taliban from Pakistan--a very tall order, especially seeing as already the Pakistanis are disavowing any participation in military action against Afghanistan--I don't see how this is going to "end" terrorism or even the bin Laden networks. A commando raid that nabs bin Laden--or the Taliban caving and turning him over (unlikely, given that the Taliban depends on bin Laden for its own security, as witnessed in the assassination of the leader of the anti-Taliban resistance in the north, Ahmed Masood, one week ago in an operation bin Laden watchers call a "classic bin Laden operation")--would be very popular here, but I don't see much more than a marginal long-term gain for Bush. Indeed, if they manage to arrest or assassinate bin Laden, I don't see this being so much as a long-term gain for any single politician, as a restoration of some "confidence" in government structures and domestic security per se. Bin Laden's demise would be welcome to just about everybody, and I certainly hope it happens quickly. However, other violent political acts directed against the US and Israel will certainly pop up somewhere else even if parts of bin Laden's network is somehow smashed, and the killing or conviction of few fanatics is only limited consolation for mass murder.
We're highly likely to see more incidents in any case, as others will rise from bin Laden's networks, Islamic Jihad, the Muslin Brotherhood, etc., etc., to take his place so long as the US is perceived on the Islamic street as a cynical superpower bent on repressing Muslims to maintain access to cheap oil and unwilling to pressure Israel to make more concessions to the Palestinians. What we need to do is have a conversation in this country about the other dimensions of globalization that need to be put in place to make a global world economic order managed as a real unit in planetary space-time stable, i.e., international welfare structures; global financial regulation; advocacy of democratic revolutions in places like Saudi Arabia; etc. Of course, the consequences of even discussing these things make a mockery of Republican policy assumptions of the last twenty years. For instance, who now can say that the US is NOT the world's policeman?
In general, it's very difficult to read the situation, which is now highly volatile and can break in any number of ways. Domestically, things can very easily break against the right. Keep in mind that in the week before the attacks, Bush's political ratings in the polls had deteriorated markedly, and he was reaching new lows in popular trust and confidence (in the mid 40s). In fact, the Republican leadership was beginning to panic in the face of next year's congressional elections, and was openly criticizing Bush for his "lack of initiative" in the case of continuing relative economic stagnation. Almost certainly, the attacks are going to further weaken the economy, and several major investment firms are now calling a recession in the next few quarters "likely." Given this, I don't see how an inarticulate Bush is going to be helped by presiding over a rhetorical "war" that is actually a police operation in the face of a horrible tragedy, even if there's an ephemeral short-term spike in his ratings.
For me, this seems like a politically treacherous situation for anybody in the presidency, let alone someone who has shown no ability whatever to "connect" charismatically. Of course, Clinton managed to use his handling of the Oklahoma tragedy to revive his then-sagging political standing, but only because of the folly of militant Republicans mimicking of the rhetoric of the militias in the mid-1990s. Moreover, Clinton was highly articulate and was perceived as being empathic with ordinary people, which meant he and his advisors had the ability to take advantage of this Republican blunder. On the other hand, Bush's greatest political weakness all along has been the perception that he does not empathize or understand ordinary people. In my opinion, he's looked fairly pathetic this week--especially in the first few days--and as the Frank Rich column in Saturday's NYTimes exemplifies, scathing commentary about his performance is already being voiced in the mainstream media. Moreover, it is a very good sign that US support and financing of bin Laden in the 1980s during the guerilla war against the Soviets in Afghanistan is being openly discussed in the mass media. And despite the intense anger that ordinary Americans feel, I don't believe that the majority of people will for very long simply want to indiscriminately bomb civilian populations and commit mass murder, even if there is a rash instinct to "go to war" at the current moment. It's worth emphasizing again that Bush is promising the moon. The whole emphasis on a protracted "war" against terrorism that will last "years" smells of a cynical strategy to use the tragedy to somehow indefinitely mute all the debates that were running against Bush as of Tuesday morning. I don't see it working for more than a few months, let alone a year.
Take National Missile Defense. Maybe Bush will get some funding out of this, but we're already seeing a very frank debate in the mass media about the limits of hi-tech military solutions against low-tech tactics. And if Bush goes ahead and abrogates the ABM treaty this year, he'll undercut the very international coalition he's trying to build. Indeed, already the Russians have made it very clear that they will not allow the US to use their bases in Tajikistan along the Afghan border for ANY sort of military operation, even a limited commando raid. And yesterday, the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, came out and said "we are not at war," emphasizing instead that what is needed is an intensive policing operation directed at a very specific network. All of this indicates the enormous difficulty of consolidating a coalition in NATO itself behind an amorphous and ill-defined "war." Given Bush's atrocious record of undermining or disavowing one international treaty after the next, I don't see his administration as being in a position to mount a sustained international coalition without backtracking on much of its avowed foreign policy, which of course would be a political defeat for Bush. He's really painted himself into a corner, it seems to me.
Certainly the situation is dangerous domestically, and we're likely to see lots of ugly racism, etc. in the short run. Right now, many millions of people are simply going through a completely understandable and natural paroxysm of grief and anger, so let's wait and see how things develop before assuming that Bush will come out of this strengthened.
Internationally, the convergence of this event with the end of the speculative economic boom of the 1990s may force the citizens of United States to come face to face with the "New World Order" we have wrought but which few American citizens understand or have thought greatly about. Americans will certainly now understand in a way they didn't before how integral civil wars in far-away places really are in their daily lives. Though the international situation will be very dangerous for the foreseeable future, if these events could spark an open citizens dialog that put real issues in the public eye for once, things don't necessarily have to spiral down into more and more tragedy.
Best, Marc Garcelon
PS--Here's an-email from a friend I received Saturday night, which indicates the abysmal character of much current public policy discourse in this country:
"Just saw the show 'America's Most Wanted' (a special two-hour episode!). They said they've received thousands of e-mails from average Americans asking what they can do to help in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The answer on the show was explicit: "Buy more things!" The reporter said, "If you been wanting that new suit, now is the time to go get it!" It's surely a tragedy, first and foremost, in consumer confidence. Another widespread e-mail has urged me - and every American - to do the patriotic thing and buy 20 shares of stock in my favorite company. (Did you get this?) The courage and vision is overwhelming!"