Along the Tracks

Wednesday, September 11, 2002
 

Has the world changed since September 11, 2001?


Note: I don't usually reprint what I've put in The Leader or the Times, but this really sums up what I feel about where we've been and where we're headed.
This question seems to bubble up everywhere, from the Sunday news shows to the local bar stools. A year ago, no one would have believed such a debate could ever occur: Was it not clear that an attack which killed thousands of Americans “changed everything?”
Time, it seems, does have the power to heal, and, less fortunately, the power to cloud memories. A comment I have heard more than once is that people are “forgetting what it was like.” We have been protected from the television images of the towers falling, shielded from the power of our anger and sadness, even instructed by some to “put it behind us.”
The reasons for this resistance to change are very basic. A change in perspective on America’s relationship to the world, and our relationships with each other, forces a shift in political outlook. That, of course, results in the realignment of power.
And a change in power means some will gain and some will lose: Thus, the core of this struggle.
The terms “conservative” and “liberal” long ago lost their original meanings, and were usurped by partisan pigeonholing. These relics of the Cold War seem to be fracturing under the strain of the post-9/11 world. Today’s status-quo conservatives - those who argue nothing has changed since that dreadful day - are an amalgam of yesterday’s power brokers, from Great Society marchers to America First-ers, who seek to maintain their spheres of influence. Meanwhile, the forward-thinking liberals include such incongruous proponents as Christian fundamentalists and former Communists.
It was impossible to see where the world was heading through the smoke and dust of September 11; the fog of the current debate at this first anniversary of the attacks continues to cloud the future. Still, some trends are becoming obvious:
•Alliances, old and new. The bugabear accusation of “unilateralism” is emitted primarily by the “no change” crowd. The Bush administration, has, in fact, fostered numerous new alliances to compliment our previous array of friends. Russia is the prime example. There will inevitably be differences between the U.S. and our past rival, but the direction here is clearly one of greater cooperation and even joint action.
India has become an important source of assistance in the war on terrorism. Our alliance with Pakistan was crucial to the Afghan campaign. Our relationships with these two countries - bitter enemies with each other - may finally give us the leverage to bring about a long-term resolution between them over Kashmir, another hotpoint of terrorism.
Meanwhile, our move toward more firm support of Israel makes a statement about America’s belief in democracy and our rejection of terror-sponsoring regimes like Arafat’s Palestine Authority. A key NATO member, Turkey, has become an important partner in Afghanistan and will be crucial in any march to Baghdad. Britain, of course, remains our staunchest, most trusted ally, proved once again by Tony Blair’s position as point-man on the Iraq debate.
As our alliances change, some countries and blocs are losing their influence. The Continental European nations, though still our friends, have failed to modernize their armed forces and so have fallen to irrelevance in military discussions. These countries, liberated then defended by Americans for over a half century, seem to believe they have no need to risk their own sons and daughters and wealth, yet have a right to decide how, when and where America may commit her own. The evaporation of the Soviet threat has resulted in a kind of “unilateralism” by the European Union - economic interests are paramount, and U.S. concerns about security threats, international renegades, and the weight of one-sided treaties are brushed aside. Since 9/11, the United States has replaced the world agenda of the EU with one in closer alignment with American values.
Still to be seen is how these realignments will affect other portions of the world. Financial crises, coupled with political upheavals, make it impossible for much of Latin America to contribute to world stability, and may present new opportunities for oppressive regimes and terror masters. America can improve this outlook by remaining engaged, and focus assistance not just on governments, but the people of our southern neighbors. An early proposal of the Bush administration was a Western Hemisphere free-trade zone. The concept should be aggressively pursued, not only for our own short-term economic interests, but for the long-term interests of the entire region.
Brutality, civil war and societal breakdown are crippling Africa. Several nations already provide havens for terrorists. The vast majority of the populace is hopelessly poor, living day to day on the generosity of international relief. The few democracies are shaky and often corrupted by greed and graft. And though many parts of the continent are blessed with natural wealth, the powerful give little or none to their starving subjects.
Here too, clear leadership by America could provide a framework for stability and growth. Perhaps the harshest American policy in the eyes of the Third World is our subsidization of agriculture. In lands where there are no factories, and no funds to build them, income has but one source - farming. Yet subsidized American (and European) grain, dairy and meat depress prices on the world market, holding Third World farmers at a subsistance level. An enlightened farm policy which did not encourage massive overproduction and the resulting low prices would provide families in Africa and other developing nations with the means to lift themselves from poverty. That independent source of support would break the stranglehold the region’s oppressive regimes maintain by keeping their populations dependent on the government. Economic freedom could be the first step to political renewal.
•Join the party. On the American political landscape, a realignment also seems to be occurring. Though the makeup of political alliances five or 10 years hence would be mere speculation, the dividing lines are becoming clear.
More and more, the Democratic leadership is touting the conservative, “nothing changed” line of reasoning. This belief controls policy priorities. A quick perusal of interviews with Democratic leaders proves this case. According to their stated positions (past and present), most Democrats believe Saddam Hussein presents a serious threat, they think he will harass his neighbors (again), and they believe he will eventually use weapons of mass destruction (again). Still, they argue America should not act now. Rather, the priorities they list before taking action on Iraq are balancing the budget, strengthening Social Security and providing a prescription drug benefit through Medicare. The actual merits of these initiatives are really secondary; the point is they are all seen as more important than prosecuting the war on terrorism. In other words, September 11 changed nothing.
There are, of course, Republicans who wholeheartedly concur with the demotion of the war to secondary status; but George W. Bush is the GOP’s leader, and he sets the party’s policy: “the world has changed.” There are also numerous Democrats who see national security as our top priority; but the leadership of the Democratic Party has clearly staked out ground favoring the pre-9/11 status quo.
This division is having repercussions already, and could result in some major shifts in allegiance.
The status quo adherents in both parties are rooted primarily in Cold War thought. Although that struggle was won over a decade ago, these political animals still see the world through that prism and the events - Vietnam, arms treaties, the “military-industrial complex” - which shaped it. Thus, Republican Chuck Hagel sounds like Democrat John Kerry, who sounds like Republican Brent Scowcroft. Daschle, Gore, Carter, Buchanan, Eagleburger - different faces from different parties, yet all sound earily the same. None wish to argue the premise of pre-emption, upon which White House Iraq policy is based. Rather, they seek to anchor the debate in the old terminology of the Cold War: “deterrence” and “U.N. resolutions” and “international coalitions.”
These differences are likely to drive a wedge between interest groups within each party - perhaps one wide enough to push several into the “independent” catagory, up for grabs by either party with each election cycle.
Jewish voters and African-Americans are the first notable voting blocks to make a mark. The cynicism displayed by Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney, accusing the president of failing to act on prior knowledge of the attacks and decrying Israel as a terrorist state, resulted in a strong and ultimately successful effort to unseat her. Funds poured into the coffers of her rival, Denise Majette, from Jewish and pro-Israel lobby groups, to assist in the upset. The message that money spread reached the ears of middle-class black voters, who were tired of the old thinking McKinney embodied - so they fired her.
Polls are finding many Jewish voters - long a liberal Democratic mainstay - considering not only a move toward moderate Democrats, but a move to the Republican party. Time will tell whether these voters become a new voice in the GOP or a force of realignment toward the view that “the world has changed” inside the Democratic coalition.
African-American voters are not only separating themselves from the Democratic leadership, but also from the self-proclaimed black “leaders” the Democratic leadership fawns over. The McKinney rejection was the stongest sign to this shift - but there are others. The recent “Millions for Reparations” march in Washington, D.C., drew a couple thousand protestors. The victimization game played by the likes of Jesse Jackson and Louis Farakhan appears unseemly, even sick, when compared with 3,000 victims of all colors and creeds a year ago. And then there is this jarring fact: The Democrats have talked racial equality for decades without giving blacks opportunities for leadership; this Republican administration’s policies on education, foreign relations and national security are dominated and led by African Americans. Again, it is uncertain whether this key voting block will switch parties or redirect the Democrats. Either way, it will be a strong statement that “the world has changed.”
The year ahead is likely to include new hardships - war with Iraq, continued dissension over priorities, and perhaps (God forbid) another major terrorist attack. Any of these or other unforeseen challenges may force new directions on the political landscape. The real question is not whether the world has changed, or will continue to change. It has, and it will. Rather, how will America face these changes and lead the world into its new era?


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