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Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 2002 / 7 Kislev, 5763

David Silverberg

David Silverberg
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Congress: Welcome to the 21st century | The dates on the calendar notwithstanding, the 108th Congress will truly be the first Congress of the 21st century.

That's because it will be meeting in a new era. Centuries don't change according to the calendar; they change according to events.

The world of the 19th century did not run neatly from 1800 to 1900. Rather, it can be argued that it ran from the Congress of Vienna in 1814 to the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The first event constructed a world of great powers, monarchies and aristocratic rule, while the second event tore down that world and inaugurated a world of secular ideologies and a confrontation between totalitarianism and democracy.

Historians will no doubt look back on the global celebration of New Year's 2000 as the pinnacle of the 20th century and a high point in American history. At midnight, Dec. 31, 1999, the United States was the supreme power on earth, the nation was at peace, and democracy had securely triumphed. Virtually all the world's countries celebrated the turning of the same calendar in what amounted to a paean to globalization.

We all know the date when that changed and the true 21st century commenced: Sept. 11, 2001.

When the 108th Congress takes office in January, the United States is still likely to be the dominant power on earth. However, it will be on guard and vulnerable to terrorist attack. It will be at war against terrorist forces and may be actively engaged in military operations in the Middle East. Religion, which seemed laid to rest as a force in human affairs at the beginning of the 20th century, will be an active cause of division and strife. The American budget will be in deficit and the electorate will be divided.

The 108th Congress will be a war Congress, bequeathed conflict by its enemies and an Iraq war resolution passed by its predecessor. Even if the United States doesn't commence military operations, war's possibility will be hanging over the country's head. Prosecuting war - whether in Iraq or elsewhere - and dealing with its sundry aftermaths will likely be the overwhelming order of business for at least the next two years, and longer if Bush remains in office.

It will be a Congress preoccupied with the new American policy of preemption. Indeed, the notion that the United States might take up arms based on the suspicion of threat is going to haunt all future congresses.

This will be a Congress that will have to walk a narrower tightrope than previous congresses between security and liberty. The 107th reacted reflexively to the Sept. 11 attacks in passing the PATRIOT Act and other homeland security measures.

However, the concern over civil liberties is growing and although the issue received barely a whisper during the campaign it looks likely to achieve a much higher profile in this Congress.

The obverse of that preoccupation with civil liberty is going to be a Congress preoccupied with homeland security. Eventually, a Homeland Security Department will be established. However, oversight of that department and evaluating the terrorist threat against the United States and preparing for it will continue to necessarily obsess lawmakers.

Money - and lots of it - is going to be necessary to cope with these threats and their countermeasures. Under these circumstances, making permanent a tax cut that was passed when the nation was running a surplus and at peace and coming off one of the most extraordinary boom times in its history, should not be Congress' first order of business.

On the contrary, the 108th Congress should come to Washington prepared to lay the groundwork for prolonged conflict. While the 108th Congress has largely been elected on the basis of local issues and domestic priorities, foreign affairs and defense will loom large throughout its term. That means it must find new ways to raise government revenues, not slash them, and strengthen defense, intelligence and homeland security.

The race for the presidency is now on. Democrats still must focus public attention on domestic and economic issues if they're to win the country's highest office in 2004. That's going to be extremely difficult in light of President Bush's activism and the importance of foreign affairs and defense.

One hopes that all the candidates who worked so hard to get their seats will be prepared for what they'll face once they're seated.

And one more thing: Saddam Hussein must be destroyed.

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JWR contributor David Silverberg is managing editor of The Hill and author of "Congress for Dummies." Comment by clicking here.

1/17/02: Terror comes to Indonesia: Establishing another Islamic republic there through violence and intimidation must not be allowed to happen
10/10/02: Learning to live on the knife-edge
09/27/02: The world after Saddam Hussein
09/13/02: Dispatches from the future: Sept. 11, 2003
08/11/02: 'Go ahead, make my day'
06/20/02: InfoTech: Lieberman leaps into high-tech
06/13/02: Pentagon Perspective: Getting ready for the big changes
05/23/02: Welcome to the Wonderful World of Intelligence
05/16/02: Crusaders and cannons vs. rockets
04/26/02: The future of civilization --- and those activists who seek to undermine it


© 2002, David Silverberg