Sunday 16 May 2021 | 07:33 | SYDNEY
Sunday 16 May 2021 | 07:33 | SYDNEY

The times we live in


Sam Roggeveen


12 November 2007 10:10

Andrew Sullivan's case for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama (the cover story in the latest Atlantic Monthly) relies heavily on the argument that we are living in particularly dangerous times. Here's how Sullivan describes those times, and why the political divisions caused by the US culture wars distract other presidential hopefuls like Clinton and Giuliani from meeting urgent threats:

In normal times, such division is not fatal, and can even be healthy. It’s great copy for journalists. But we are not talking about routine rancor. And we are not talking about normal times. We are talking about a world in which Islamist terror, combined with increasingly available destructive technology, has already murdered thousands of Americans, and tens of thousands of Muslims, and could pose an existential danger to the West. The terrible failures of the Iraq occupation, the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, the progress of Iran toward nuclear capability, and the collapse of America’s prestige and moral reputation, especially among those millions of Muslims too young to have known any American president but Bush, heighten the stakes dramatically.

But as Adam Smith said, there's a lot of ruin in a nation. Sullivan lists some very serious US foreign policy challenges. Still, is the situation so grave as to consider the times not 'normal' and suggest that partisan political rancour is potentially fatal?

Even complete failure of the Iraq mission would still leave the US as by far the most powerful state in the world by all the important measures. Indeed, part of its power lies in the fact that it can absorb such defeats. And Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a setback, but as Fareed Zakaria pointed out to Norman Podhoretz recently, deterrence has worked against crazier men than Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. As for the damage to America's reputation abroad during the Bush years, this has been serious, and Sullivan makes a strong case that Obama, just by dint of his name and face, will make a big difference in restoring it. But America's reputation has been low before, and the US will always be subject to more suspicion and criticism than it deserves, no matter who is president. That has never stopped the US from growing in strength and being overwhelmingly a force for good in the world.

By far the most serious threat on Sullivan's list (as Hugh White pointed out earlier today) is nuclear terrorism. But again, some perspective is called for. Even if al Qaeda got hold of, say, a dozen nuclear weapons, is the threat to the US really 'existential'? Would America as we know it cease to exist if twelve cities were flattened and perhaps a million people killed? Maybe it would. Maybe the constitution would be suspended and the US turned into a police state. But let's remember that such a scenario is still pretty unlikely, and that even if the US took such a constitutional course, it would be a result of American reactions to the attacks, not the attack itself. As John Mueller has argued, the costs of terrorism tend to come mainly from the (over)reaction it inspires. Given what he has written on his blog about American excesses in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, Sullivan should know this better than anyone.

In inflating the threats to the US, maybe Sullivan has succumbed to something called The Orwell Temptation, described by Joshua Marshall in his review of Paul Berman's 'Terror and Liberalism':

For intellectuals, however, there is always a temptation to take momentous, morally serious questions and make them out to be slightly more momentous and world-historical than they really are. Call it the Orwellian temptation. George Orwell not only epitomized what an intellectual can and should be. He has also become the symbol of the role the best intellectuals played in those critical mid-century years. Along the way, however, the image he cast--or rather his ghost, or his shade--has also become part of the pornography of intellectuals.

It is curious that Sullivan, whose outstanding blog meticulously chronicles his gradual disollusionment with George W Bush, should still be so devoted to the Administration's central organising principle: that fanatical Islam is the defining threat of our time.