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Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 2001 / 24 Tishrei, 5762

George Will

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War without precedent -- IF economics is a science of single instances, which means not a science, so, too, is war, particularly in an era characterized by both swiftly changing military technologies and the remarkable primitivism of some participants in war. We are at the predictable, almost traditional, beginning of a novel kind of war, one pitting the world's mightiest industrial nation against a cave dweller and, we are told, regimes that help supply his rudimentary needs and those of others like him.

The war's parameters are unclear because it still is unclear if it really will target regimes less brittle than the Taliban. However, the explosions in Afghanistan are punctuating what has been a clarifying 10 years in America's civic life. Arguments about domestic policies, and now about foreign policy, have been strikingly reoriented. Both conservatism and liberalism have been purified by being purged of some anachronistic ingredients.

Ten years ago many Republicans still hoped to radically revise the post-New Deal role of the federal government. By now they have had their bluff called by the opportunity to prove they were not bluffing. They have a president who is completely comfortable with the principle that the federal government has a permanent, large and growing role in assuaging two of life's great fears, illness and old age. This president vows to strengthen the emblematic achievement of the New Deal, Social Security, and to enrich, with a prescription drug benefit, the entitlement menu of Medicare, the emblematic achievement of the Great Society. Conservatism, redefined by a president eager to treat even education in grades K through 12 as a presidential responsibility, has shed its residual resentment of Washington's pervasive role in life here at home.

In January 1991 the Democratic Party had not yet shed its residual distrust of an ambitious American role in the world. The Democratic side of the Senate was (in words used to describe All Souls College, Oxford, at the time of the 1956 Suez crisis) a hotbed of cold feet: The Senate voted only narrowly (52-47) to authorize President Bush to use force to reverse Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. The liberal party was still deeply stained by the Vietnam era's inversion of isolationism -- not the old belief that America is too good to be involved in the world but the new belief that the world is too good to suffer America's involvement. Today the Democratic Party provides scant comfort for Americans who believe American power is the world's affliction.

George Orwell said that "England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality." What is remarkable is not that a slice of the American intelligentsia is like that but how little that slice matters. Americans are too absorbed in their collective drama of vulnerability and retaliation even to bother despising their despisers on campuses and on the wilder shores of left-wing journalism. Montaigne said that people take seriously what they hate. How galling it must be for the far left to be incapable even of eliciting hatred.

The president and the opposition party both face coming strains because of this principle the president has reiterated often since Sept. 11, as he did last Thursday: "I will enforce the doctrine that says that if you house a terrorist, you're just as guilty as the terrorists themselves." That commits this country to an ambitious agenda, because it brands as enemies, and demands reform or extinction for, the seven regimes that the State Department says sponsor terrorism: Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Cuba.

The great question is how long the Bush Doctrine will have the support of the opposition party, or of the Bush administration, as the nation experiences the inevitable frictions and frustrations of this war without precedent. Sir Michael Howard writes of how several 19th-century developments -- railways, high explosives, breech-loading firearms, conscription, many young men inured to regimentation by industrialism -- produced wars of masses, from the American Civil War through the 20th century:

"War was becoming too serious a business to be left to an aristocracy whose inherent qualities of self-confidence and bravura, displayed to best advantage in the now highly vulnerable cavalry, were at best elegant appendages to machines that demanded highly qualified engineers to construct and maintain, and at worst recipes for spectacular suicide."

Spectacular suicide triggered today's war. But it cannot be won without the involuntary death of more regimes than the rickety one that is the first target of the military might of our machines and engineers.

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