An End to Sweet Illusions

America must open its eyes to the rest of the world.

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War is hell to figure out, and so its usual effect is to simplify our thinking. It’s either hit ’em harder, they deserve it (mainstream thought), or this is wrong and stupid (left variant). But these last few months have felt different-people aren’t reacting quite as reflexively as usual. We seem to be struggling toward reality.

In rural America, those illuminated mobile signs that list this week’s sermon topic, the next lotto payout, and the date for the fire department potpie supper serve as a kind of information two-lane blacktop-an internet for people who spend more time staring at their windshield than a monitor screen. Since September 11, most of them have been given over to patriotic slogans. At least on the back roads of upstate New York where I live, there’s lots of “God Bless America” and “United We Stand.” And this, too, seen in front of a place that rents forklifts and other heavy equipment: “Fight Terrorists, Not Muslims.”

Meanwhile, across the state line in the People’s Republic of Vermont, a thousand people packed a Burlington chapel to hear Boston University professor Howard Zinn caution against all-out war in Afghanistan-but organizers were passing out American flag buttons in the lobby.

This mild convergence of the nra and npr crowds reflects the facts of the situation. On the one hand, we’re fighting against people who fly airplanes into our offices, so it’s hard to pretend we don’t need to do something. On the other hand, our assailants fight for an idea, not a nation, and how the hell do you battle that without making it worse? None of these complexities is particularly difficult to understand, and as a result pretty much everyone ends up scratching their heads about how exactly we should proceed.

And that head scratching is a good sign-it indicates that we, as a people, may emerge from this horrible season thinking about the world as a more complicated place. Engaging in a real realpolitik, one that flows from the actual facts of the world around us rather than a set of attitudes. Not the “hardheaded” realism we’re so used to hearing about, the one that treats the world like a board game, but an almost scientific realism that begins with the facts on the ground. In the end, that realism will be what saves us.

For instance, it is clear that our security can no longer be guaranteed entirely by our own efforts. No matter how many planes we build, no matter how many missile defenses we squander our resources on, a few men operating in secret can cause chaos. And it’s equally clear that stopping them depends largely on building an international coalition of governments who will try to track their movements, impede their finances, and so forth. It took George Bush about 20 minutes on September 11 to turn into an internationalist.

But that internationalism won’t last very long if it’s entirely one-sided-if it’s just the rest of the world helping us on our vital national project. Last year the United States, alone among the nations of the world, rejected the Kyoto global warming accords, a plan for an international criminal court of justice, and a treaty strengthening protections against biowarfare. We won’t have the luxury of such arrogance in the future-our enormous economic might gives us great leverage in the world, but it doesn’t give us immunity. At some level we now understand that we are like Spain or Brazil or Ghana or any other nation that depends on a functioning, cooperative international community. Other countries have vital national projects too-if global warming goes the way scientists forecast, Bangladesh (one of the most populous Muslim nations on earth) is going to be underwater in 50 years.

And of course, as we’re also coming to realize, this new realpolitik involves more than just rounding up support from governments with our various carrots and sticks. We have to wage a battle for public opinion as well, reaching past the often unrepresentative rulers to make our case to ordinary people around the world-who are, after all, the future pool of potential terrorists. And that is difficult too, because those people are much, much poorer than we are, and believe, rightly, that we have cared little about that fact.

In the last decade, as I have traveled around many parts of the planet, the quote I’ve had thrown in my face most often comes from the first President Bush. He made it on his way to Rio de Janeiro for the 1992 Earth Summit: Yes, yes, it was all very well to talk about all kinds of things, he said. “But the American way of life is not up for negotiation.” Well, that was literally true-wise or not, we kept building bigger houses, driving bigger cars. But I’m not sure it’s quite so true anymore. Once we’re a few decades into whatever new order September 11 produces, I think we will

realize that one of its many meanings is this: A world where one-tenth of the population gets to be extremely wealthy and six-tenths very poor is not, in the long run, a stable place. People will not simply just be cool with that. It isn’t realistic to think so.

But it’s also no longer very realistic to think of our “American way of life” as secure simply because it’s so successful. It’s based in too large part on the endless consumption of cheap fossil fuel. Forget the longer-term effects, like climate change, of that appetite, and just focus instead on the extremely practical and immediate question of its vulnerability. It depends on supply lines stretching to the Middle East and now pipelines running across the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. It requires the indefinite support of the Saudi royal family. Domestically its linchpins include the Alaska pipeline, which was disabled for two days in early October by a single rifle shot from a drunken hunter. Our Air Force now regularly scrambles jets to protect our nuclear power plants.

All of a sudden, therefore, the environmentalist vision of a decentralized energy system based mostly on renewable technologies seems like a national security mandate-after all, no one is up on their roof clutching a rifle to protect their solar panels. The Air Force isn’t scrambling its jets to protect wind farms. And that’s just one example of the long-standing realities exposed by the events of September.

Look-Osama bin Laden is clearly a maniac, and it is clearly necessary to get rid of him. That is realistic, and that’s why there haven’t been crowds in the street opposing the war in Afghanistan. But getting rid of him won’t end our insecurity, and the ways in which we take him on could make us more vulnerable, not less. That is realistic, and that’s why Americans aren’t cheering on this war with our usual fervor.

Realism is a bore and a bother. It’s been infinitely nicer to live in a world of illusion-that we were different from other nations, that we could ignore international agreements that didn’t suit us, that we could go on using cheap energy without ever paying a price. Our success and our geographic isolation have let us get away with those delusions, but September 11 has shown them for what they were. Hence the need for real realism, for a view more clear-eyed and hard-nosed than we’ve had before.

And this leaves progressives in a strange place. Usually concerns about social justice or international cooperation or environmental protection are seen as soft, airy, “idealistic,” the things you get around to when you’re done with the real, serious work of growing your economy, strengthening your military, outmaneuvering the rest of the world. Now, though, Americans are beginning to see that realism demands that we start to set aside our illusions and act in the world as it really is: crowded, dangerous, fragile, polyglot. Its resources are finite, and its patience is not boundless. The left has fantasies of its own, of course-that the world is a friendlier place than in fact is the case, that all the grievances of other peoples have some base in reason. These need to be discarded too-a sentimental progressivism is of no use either if the left is going to help America move toward a new definition of national security.

The temptation, of course, will be to slip back into all those various illusions. Within days our leaders were calling on us to return to “normal.” But normal was a sweet dream that could not last forever. The alarm has gone off, and no matter how hard we hammer the snooze button, we’re going to be listening to the jangle for years to come. The sane course, and our patriotic duty, is to leave fantasy behind and come live in the real world.


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