'Long war' is breaking down into tedium
March 5, 2006
I had to sign a tedious business contract the other day. They wanted my corporation number -- fair enough -- plus my Social Security number -- well, if you insist -- and also my driver's license number -- hang on, what's the deal with that?
Well, we e-mailed over a query and they e-mailed back that it was a requirement of the Patriot Act. So we asked where exactly in the Patriot Act could this particular requirement be found and, after a bit of a delay, we got an answer.
And on discovering that there was no mention of driver's licenses in that particular subsection, I wrote back that we have a policy of reporting all erroneous invocations of the Patriot Act to the Department of Homeland Security on the grounds that such invocations weaken the rationale for the act, and thereby undermine public support for genuine anti-terrorism measures and thus constitute a threat to America's national security.
And about 10 minutes after that the guy sent back an e-mail saying he didn't need the driver's license number after all.
I'd be interested to know how much of this bureaucratic opportunism is going on. A couple of weeks earlier, I went to the bank to deposit a U.S. dollar check drawn on a Canadian financial institution, and the clerk announced that for security reasons checks drawn on Canadian banks now had to be sent away for collection and I'd have access to the funds in a couple of weeks. This was, she explained, a requirement of -- ta-da -- the Patriot Act. And, amazingly, that turned out not to be anywhere in the act either.
Any day now, my little girl will wake up, look under the pillow and find a note from the Tooth Fairy explaining that before processing of financial remuneration for said tooth can commence, the Patriot Act requires the petitioning child to supply a federal taxpayer identification number and computer-readable photo card with retinal scan.
I don't have a problem with the Patriot Act per se, so much as the awesome powers claimed on its behalf by everybody from car salesmen to the agriculture official who demanded proof from my maple-sugaring neighbor that his sap lines were secure against terrorism. Which is a hard thing to prove. You may think you've secured them against terrorism, and one morning you wake up to a loud explosion and the TV's showing breaking news of people howling in agony as boiling syrup rains down from the skies. Apparently, there's a big problem with al-Qaida putting anthrax in the maple supply. You don't notice it on your pancake because it blends in with the confectioners' sugar.
My worry is that on the home front the war is falling prey to lack-of-mission creep -- that, in the absence of any real urgency and direction, the "long war" (to use the administration's new and unsatisfactory term) is degenerating into nothing but bureaucratic tedium, media doom-mongering and erratic ad hoc oppositionism. To be sure, all these have been present since Day One: The press have been insisting Iraq is teetering on the brink of civil war for three years and yet, despite the urgings of CNN and the BBC, those layabout Iraqis stubbornly refuse to get on with it. They're happy to teeter for another three years, no matter how many "experts" stamp their foot and pout their lips and say "I want my civil war now." The New York Times ran a headline after the big bombing: "More Clashes Shake Iraq; Political Talks Are In Ruins." The "political talks" resumed the day after publication. The "ruins" were rebuilt after 48 hours.
The quagmire isn't in Iraq but at home. For five years, beginning with the designation of "war on terror," the president's public presentation has been consistent: Islam is a great religion, religion of peace, marvelous stuff, White House Ramadan Banquet the highlight of the calendar, but, sadly, every barrel has one or two bad apples, even Islam believe it or not, and once we've hunted those down we'll join the newly liberated peace-loving Muslim democracies in a global alliance of peace-loving peaceful persons. Most sentient beings have been aware that there is, to put it mildly, a large element of evasion about this basic narrative, but only now is it being explicitly rejected by all sides. William F. Buckley and George Will have more or less respectfully detached themselves from the insane idealism of shoving liberty and democracy down people's throats whether they want it or not. And, on the ports deal with Dubai, a number of other commentators I respect plus a stampede of largely ignorant weathervane pols have denounced the administration for endangering American security on the eastern seaboard. I can't see that: The only change is that instead of being American stevedores employed by a British company they'll now be American stevedores employed by a United Arab Emirates company.
But what I find interesting is the underlying argument: At heart, what Hillary Clinton and Co. are doing is dismissing as a Bush fiction the idea of "friendly" Arab "allies" in the war of terror. They're not necessarily wrong. Even the "friendliest" Arab regimes tend to be a bunch of duplicitous shysters: King Hussein sided with Saddam in the Gulf war, Mubarak and the House of Saud are the cause of much of our present woes. I would be perfectly prepared to consider a raft of measures insisting that, for the duration of the war, there'll be restrictions on access to the United States by certain countries. As I've argued for some years, it's absurd that the Saudis are allowed to continue with their financial and ideological subversion of everything from American think-tanks to mosques to prison chaplaincy programs (and, I'll bet, without providing driver's license numbers).
However, I think we should do that as a conscious policy decision, rather than as reflex piecemeal oppositionism. What Democrats seem to be doing with Dubai Ports World, whether they realize it or not, is tapping in to a general public skepticism (to put it politely) about the entire Muslim world. In that sense, the ports deal is the American equivalent of the Danish cartoon jihad: increasing numbers of Europeans -- if not yet their political class -- are fed up with switching on the TV and seeing Muslim men jumping up and down and threatening death followed by commentators patiently explaining that the "vast majority" of Muslims are, of course, impeccably "moderate." So what? There were millions of "moderate" Germans in the 1930s, and a fat lot of good they did us or them.
Despite being portrayed as a swaggering arrogant neocon warmongering cowboy, President Bush has, in fact, been circumspect to a fault for five years. But the equivocal constrained rhetoric is insufficient to a "long war." And from all sides, more and more people are calling its bluff.