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Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2002 / 5 Tishrei, 5763

Michael Kelly

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Before and after 9-11 | In the town where I live, a pretty routine sort of town, you can drive down any street and count half a dozen American flags in the space of a couple of blocks. It is not that way just today; it has been that way since a year ago.

Everywhere, the open expression of patriotism and of related civic virtues--courage, resolution, unity--has become part of the landscape. There is little loud or boastful or jingoistic about this. It is not so much flag-waving as flag-showing. We are a country full of people who want simply to pay external witness to the old values that we have newly made internal.

This is not a fanciful notion. The Washington Post on Sunday reported the results of a national survey on general attitudes and beliefs. In some specifics, the patriotic impulse has diminished from the great spike upward seen in surveys just after Sept. 11. Before Sept. 11, only 30 percent of the public said they trusted the federal government; that figure jumped to 64 percent just after Sept. 11; now it is back down to 40 percent. But in broader measures, the patriotic impulse--to come together, to be proud of each other and of our collective enterprise, to support the civic institutions that represent us and serve us--remains at a high not seen in decades before Sept. 11. Eighty-one percent say they are ``very proud'' of America's armed forces (compared to 47 percent in 1996); 69 percent are very proud of America's scientific and technological achievements; 46 percent will go so far as to proclaim themselves very proud of American literature and art.

The quiet persistence of these sentiments answers what was the great and worrying question that arose a year ago, a question of national character. Would we find in ourselves the resolution for doing what was necessary to vanquish our enemies and secure a new security for ourselves and a new position for our nation in the world? Would we stick it out for the long haul, against whatever came?

Yes, it tentatively turns out. As is shown in a comprehensive survey by the American Enterprise Institute of polling results during the past 12 months, the public--its resolve built upon its new old values--has maintained majority support for a war that is not limited to specific terrorist groups, but also to nations that support anti-American terrorism. This support endures even when those surveyed are reminded of such factors as the risk to American lives, a lack of support among allies and Arab nations and the likely cost and duration of a wider war. And this support endures specifically in the case of the looming real danger of war with Iraq.

But our yes is a worried and somewhat fragile yes. It has slipped--especially in the case of war with Iraq--over months dominated by much partisan and media worrying over the risks entailed. Most recent polls show support for the Iraqi campaign down to less than 60 percent.

Still, I think the public resolve will hold--at least to the point of going to war against Iraq. It will hold largely because of one man's resolve. George Bush's furious critics see him entirely in terms of limitations, but limitations have their place. Bush's response to Sept. 11 was very limited: It's war, good against evil, us against them, choose your sides, we're going to win. This worked, where a more intellectual, considered response would have failed.

Of course, limitations also have their limitations. For most of this summer, the president and his people, in their certitude, acted as if there was no need to convince anyone of anything so obvious as the need see Saddam off to hell. That was a mistake.

But now, the administration has begun its campaign, and suddenly, I think, the high point of opposition is already behind us. There is going to be a war and it is going to be supported by Congress and probably by the United Nations. The reason for this is simple enough. No serious person disagrees with the idea that the regime of Saddam Hussein represents a grave threat to American and global security and that something should be done. All that resolve required was a coherent argument that something must be done and can be done.

Bush is now making this case, and he is going to succeed in making it, because he is a limited man. All he knows is that this has to be done, so he is going to do it. And so will we.

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Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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