Life after Al-Qaeda
Today we are asking how long U.S. forces will remain in Iraq. We try to answer this question in terms of military success and failure: Can the United States win?
My guess and thats all it can be is that the war will fizzle out in a few months without a decisive victory or defeat. Something else, now unforeseen, will come up at home maybe a fiscal crisis brought on by stupendous Federal spending, the national debt, the crash of the dollar. It may make terrorism look like a minor annoyance.
A sudden arrest of the prosperity weve taken for granted could change the way we look at the world. Few expected the Great Depression that abruptly ended the prosperity of the 1920s when the stock market plunged in 1929.
Im too young to remember that, but Im old enough to remember the generation that could never forget it. That memory haunted American politics until the Reagan years and kept the Democrats dominant in Congress until the Clinton years. As that generation died off, so did the memory, and new urgencies displaced the fear of the Depressions return.
But that fear, and that memory, had a remarkably long life, enduring long after, as we can see in retrospect, theyd ceased to be rational. Most voters were more afraid of another depression than of another world war, even in the nuclear age. Ive never quite understood this, but its a fact.
Maybe a personal illustration will shed some light on the subject. My mother was born in 1924. She remembered lying awake hungry as a little girl, hoping my grandfather would bring home milk for her and her eight siblings to drink. Poverty was a vivid reality for her. To the end of her life she was convinced that Franklin Roosevelt saved her from starvation, and nothing could convince her otherwise. She was a loyal Democrat to the end. Similar experiences probably account for the loyalty of most black voters to the Democrats to this day.
Its extremely hard to convert people from loyalties formed by memories of that sort. A reader recently wrote to tell me that all liberals are dishonest; he couldnt believe that anyone can sincerely believe in liberalism. I know better. People can form loyalties to ideas, political and religious, that are every bit as strong as loyalties to their flesh and blood, especially when they believe that those ideas have saved their lives or their souls.
One of my mothers friends suffered sexual abuse from her father until he became a Jehovahs Witness and the abuse stopped. She remained a devout Jehovahs Witness to the end of her days. Hers was, you might say, an experiential, not a theological conversion.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 have convinced many Americans that we are in mortal peril, and many of them regard President Bush as their protector in the same way my mother regarded Roosevelt as hers. But just as the Depression eventually gave way to other challenges, so will the problem of terrorism. Its a question of how long.
My sense is that its already happening. After three years, al-Qaeda no longer inspires dread; it hasnt mounted anything resembling the terrible assault of 9/11, and the war on Iraq seems to have nothing to do with it: It has neither eliminated terrorism, as the hawks predicted, nor increased its frequency, as we doves expected. It has apparently diminished for lack of energy and resources. It was never the omnipotent force we feared after its great surprise attack, which was probably unrepeatable.
We are all slowly realizing that weve been much too excited over much too little: a single event that was as spectacular as it was horrible, but is unlikely to happen again. A sense of proportion is setting in. We are moving on to other concerns, as we always do and also moving back to more permanent concerns.
No doubt history will have more surprises for us, but they wont come from any direction anyone is predicting today though after they happen well all agree, as usual, that we should have seen them coming.
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