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Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2001 / 21 Tishrei 5762

Bill Schneider

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On political war

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- HOW united is the country? President Bush's job approval rating in the Gallup poll has hit 90 percent -- the highest ever recorded for any President. He's even got the support of 84 percent of Democrats.

Public support for military retaliation is nearly unanimous. In Korea and Vietnam and the Gulf War and Somalia and Bosnia and Kosovo, nobody attacked the U.S. This time, they did. Americans say they are willing to endure losses and setbacks. But are they willing to endure politics? Americans believe wars should have a clear military objective -- to win. They do not have much patience for getting involved in other countries' politics.

That was the problem in Vietnam, where the U.S. was fighting to win people's ``hearts and minds.'' That was the problem in Somalia, where the cause of that country's famine turned out to be politics.

How does the U.S. avoid politics when its objective is not to defeat other countries but to persuade them to share our values and cooperate with us? In last year's campaign, George W. Bush complained that the Clinton Administration was too quick to involve the U.S. in foreign conflicts with no exit strategy and no clear-cut definition of victory. Well, guess what? In the new war on terrorism, there is no exit strategy and no clear-cut definition of victory. For Americans to accept that kind of open-ended political strategy will be the toughest test of all.

Do Americans have the stomach for a costly, long-term conflict with no definitive outcome in the foreseeable future? They've done it before.

The closest analogy is not the Gulf War. President Bush made that clear when he addressed Congress on September 20 and said, ``This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion.'' In other words, this is not my father's war.

Pearl Harbor doesn't quite work either. That was an attack on a U.S. military target by a hostile foreign power, when the world was already at war. One popular analogy compares President Bush's war on terrorism with the war on drugs. But it doesn't quite fit. The war on drugs is something America has been waging mostly on itself.

The closest analogy is the Cold War. In March 1947, President Truman addressed a joint session of Congress and declared that the U.S. was willing to assume the burden of leading the free world in the struggle against communism -- an open-ended conflict with no definitive outcome in the foreseeable future.

The enemy was an ``ism'': then communism, now terrorism. It was a global confrontation. The U.S. divided the world into our side and their side. And now? ``Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,'' President Bush said on September 20.

Now the U.S. is obsessed with the threat of terrorism. Then we were obsessed with the nuclear threat. Americans are pursuing airport security with the same zeal they once built fallout shelters and practiced ``duck and cover'' exercises. The closest parallel to the fear Americans have felt over the last three weeks was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the country was on the brink of nuclear war.

The Cold War was intensely political. The U.S. was trying to persuade other countries to share our values, not theirs. It became controversial only when actual shooting broke out, first in Korea and later in Vietnam, and Americans expressed a deep distaste for fighting wars with limited political objectives. But the Cold War was always bipartisan. It originated with Harry Truman and was sustained by Dwight Eisenhower, who repudiated his party's isolationist tradition.

The Cold War taught the U.S. some valuable lessons, which are being applied to ``America's New War.'' In the early days of the Cold War, Americans were obsessed with ``the enemy within.'' When he addressed Congress, President Bush said, ``I ask you to uphold the values of America, and remember why so many have come here.''

It took a long time for the U.S. to figure out that communism was not monolithic. We had to learn to make distinctions. President Bush is already doing that in the war on terrorism. He defined the enemy as ``every terrorist group of global reach.'' He defined as hostile ``any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism.''

The early years of the Cold War were marked by the unsubtle and inflexible diplomacy of John Foster Dulles (``brinkmanship''). President Bush seems to understand that the war on terrorism will be fought in a world of complex competition and shifting allegiances. Notice how quickly the U.S. lifted its anti-nuclear sanctions on Pakistan. We are even contemplating an opening to Iran, if that regime will help us.

The Cold War lasted 45 years. It was costly, difficult and sometimes controversial. When the Cold War began, there was considerable doubt that the American people would have the stomach for a massive, open-ended, global struggle. But through it all, the country sacrificed and endured. In the end, communism collapsed, owing in no small measure to the relentlessness of U.S. opposition.

For President Bush, the war on terrorism is his generation's call to arms. ``We have found our mission and our moment,'' the President said. ``We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail.''

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© 2001, William Schneider