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Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 2001 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Bill Schneider

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A nation of defiant optimists -- AMERICANS have two conflicting impulses in the world: engagement and withdrawal. The U.S. has had to choose between them many times. Enough times to show a pattern.

After World War I, the U.S. rejected the League of Nations and withdrew into isolationism for more than 20 years. A "return to normalcy," it was called in the 1920s. Nothing seemed to threaten America. Not even the rise of Adolf Hitler. It took Pearl Harbor to blast the U.S. out of its complacency.

After World War II, a lot of people expected the U.S. to turn inward again. But it didn't. A new threat, communism, had emerged. Farsighted leaders like President Harry S. Truman made a firm commitment to take it on, beginning with the announcement of the Truman Doctrine to a joint session of Congress in 1947. The U.S. would "contain" the spread of communism. For more than four decades, the communist threat persisted. And the U.S. remained engaged. "Ich bin ein Berliner," President John F. Kennedy proclaimed in June 1963. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" President Ronald Reagan declared in June 1987.

There were setbacks like Vietnam, where the United States failed to save an ally from communist takeover. And tore itself apart over the effort, not over the failure. New threats like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the revolution in Iran produced renewed calls for engagement. "We will face these challenges, and we will meet them with the best that is in us," President Jimmy Carter declared in 1980. "And we will not fail."

Finally, in 1991, nearly 45 years after the Cold War started, the U.S enjoyed two great triumphs. One came in the Persian Gulf, where President George Bush announced, "By G-d, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." The other came in Moscow, where Bush got to announce on Christmas Day what eight presidents before him could only dream of saying: "The Soviet Union itself is no more." But Americans hardly bothered to celebrate. They were preoccupied. The U.S. was in recession. In that same Cold War victory speech, Bush declared, "I am committed to attacking our economic problems at home with the same determination we brought to winning the Cold War."

So began a decade of withdrawal--a fantasy decade, much like the 1920s, when prosperity reigned and the rest of the world seemed far away. Americans became complacent in the 1990s. The country was obsessed with strange, sometimes outlandish events, starting with Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas 10 years ago this month: tales of "Long Dong Silver," pubic hairs on Coke cans and "a high-tech lynching." That event did raise public consciousness about the issue of sexual harassment. But it also became a public circus, the 1990s version of the 1920s Scopes trial.

The 1990s were a boom decade when the country was obsessed by things like O.J. Simpson, Princess Diana, Whitewater, Monica S. Lewinsky, Elian Gonzalez and Gary Condit. Former President Clinton pleaded for engagement in the world. "Choosing isolation over engagement would not make the world safer," he said in 1998. "It would make it more dangerous." But Americans were wary of risk-taking in places like Somalia. And of what some called "social work" in places like Bosnia. Especially when the U.S. did not feel threatened. "It is an extraordinary moment when there is no overriding threat to our security," Clinton said in 1999.

Just a few months ago, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger published a book rhetorically asking, "Does America Need a Foreign Policy?" The U.S. got the answer Sept. 11. Once again, Americans have been blasted out of complacency. Once again, they are threatened. Once again, they are engaged. Once again a president has confronted an international threat and pledged, "We will not fail."

When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the U.S. simply lost interest. Chaos followed. Then a takeover by dangerous radicals. The lesson is clear: It wasn't meddling in the world that got the U.S. in trouble. It was complacency.

That has disappeared. Complacency has been replaced by what? Fear? Panic? Actually, there's a rally going on in the country--a surge of confidence in public leaders and institutions. Polls show the public's trust in government rising to its highest level in more than 30 years. Which is odd, because the Sept. 11 attacks can be seen as a failure of government. But Americans are not in the mood for recriminations. People are expressing confidence in government for a simple reason: They have no alternative. It's a matter of life and death.

The anthrax scare is the first real test. Does that newfound trust in government mean anything? Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson tried to sound reassuring in a television interview: "We are very, very efficient, and we will be able to respond very effectively. And that's why Americans should feel secure." Do they? More than 80% of Americans say they are satisfied with the way the government has been handling the anthrax situation. Just 12% express dissatisfaction.

The public mood is one of defiant optimism. We're not going to let the terrorists destroy our spirit. When people are polled, they usually give what they think is the "correct" answer. Right now, the "correct" answer is to be upbeat.

Thus, in the latest Newsweek poll, 71% say they are optimistic about the future of the economy. In fact, a Gallup poll couldn't even get a majority of Americans to acknowledge that the country is in a recession!

Sixty-seven percent are confident that state and local governments are prepared to deal with a terrorist attack using chemical or biological weapons.

A majority endorses the view, not just that life in the U.S. will return to normal, but that things will actually improve.

The public is rallying, not just around the flag, but around President Bush, the federal government, the economy--everything that symbolizes America. What will it take to shake that confidence? Suppose there are more terrorist attacks. Americans might come to believe the government can not protect them. The mood of defiant optimism could evaporate.

Don't bet on it, however. Americans know that's exactly what the terrorists are trying to accomplish. They want to drive the country to fear and hysteria. There is simply no evidence that the enemy is succeeding. To paraphrase James Bond, events of the past six weeks have left Americans shaken, but also stirred. Shaken out of the complacency of the 1990s. Stirred to a new cycle of public engagement.

To comment on JWR contributor William Schneider's column, please click here.

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© 2001, William Schneider