DESPITE THE HORROR and the trauma of the event, it is too early to mark Sept. 11, 2001, as the beginning of a new era, an equivalent of Dec. 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor changed the way Americans looked at themselves and the world. They were thrust into world leadership, whether they wanted it or not. Isolationism, with its nostalgic longing for simpler times marked by main streets and small towns, was relegated to the margins of U.S. politics, where it still languishes. World War II not only drove a stake into the heart of isolationism, it gave government a broader legitimacy and allowed liberalism to flourish in the decades that followed.
In the wake of Sept. 11, Bill Moyers in The Nation and Jeff Faux in The American Prospect argue that the new mood of national solidarity will spawn another era of government activism and liberal reform. Liberals who have been waiting for just such a period since the days of the Great Society may find Moyers and Faux's judgment premature and more likely erroneous. The defeat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has not required the mobilization of our country and our military on a scale comparable to World War II, Korea, or Vietnam.
If the Afghan operation is a model for the future, new military operations against terrorism may not require any such effort. As Michael Barone put it U.S. News & World Report, "This war seems likely to require the things postindustrial America is good at. It requires high-technology weapons and information technology. It requires relatively small, highly trained, readily adaptable military units. It requires an openness and ability to deal with people who are different from us. Victory in World War II built confidence in big government and the other big units of industrial America, confidence that lasted another two decades until big government performed poorly in Vietnam. Success in the war against terrorism should build confidence in our supple, creative, small-unit postindustrial America--not in big government."
It is too simple to conclude that, if people turn to government in one emergency, they will do so to solve all problems. Asking government to protect our borders, destroy terrorist cells at home and aboard, immunize us from biological weapons threats, and create a reasonable defense from nuclear missiles does mean that Americans will develop new enthusiasm for government. Providing the common defense is a task only for the Federal government and, in the face of a dedicated enemy, it is an imperative one.
Nonetheless, the war against terrorism will consume substantial resources to strengthen border patrols, increase intelligence capacity, develop a ballistic missile defense, and modernize a high-tech military. With deficits now replacing surpluses, there will be less money for new social programs. As a result of the surpluses in the later part of the Clinton years, liberals have convinced themselves that they are the party of fiscal responsibility. Keeping such a position will make it difficult for them to support more funding for the war against terrorism and new social programs as well as a balanced budget. The only way …