The fourth great crisis of our national life is upon us. The first (1774-1794) created our republic; the second (1857-68, or 1857-72 in the South) preserved it; and the third (1929-45) made us a leading world power. Ever since Strauss and Howe published The Fourth Turning at the end of 1996, their readers have been speculating about when the crisis would come, and what it would be about. President Bush’s speech last Thursday, in my opinion, answered those questions. We now know the issue that the next ten years will decide: the nature of the
The issue of our world role is comparable in importance to that of slavery in the nineteenth century, and it has undergone a comparable revolution. Both slavery and world power were legacies of the last crisis. The Founding Fathers in the 1780s hoped and believed that slavery might disappear on its own, abolished it in many northern states, and banned it from the
The counterpart to the
The slavery question revived as a result of the Mexican War, leading first to the Compromise of 1850—the last desperate stroke of Clay’s generation, bitterly resented by most of Lincoln’s contemporaries, the Transcendentals, on both sides—and then four years later to the Kansas-Nebraska Act that upset the Missouri Compromise. The Gulf War of 1990-1 was our Compromise of 1850. The Congress barely authorized it and the country watched it with terror, but wise leadership kept the war short and not very disruptive. Yet the younger hawks—the Wolfowitzes and Perles and William Kristols and, as it turns out, George W. Bush—were deeply disappointed with its indecisive results, just as younger southerners would have preferred secession to compromise in 1850, and younger northerners bitterly resented the Fugitive Slave Act that was part of it.
9/11 was the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the prototype civil war that followed—the catalyst that made the old rules obsolete and put the critical issue squarely on the table. And the Iraq War was the Dred Scott decision, even though it has not yet provoked John Brown’s raid. Both announced the complete repudiation of previous traditions. Dred Scott threw out all attempts to restrict slavery, and the Iraq War repudiated the United Nations and the principles of international law which our fathers had fought to establish. But neither, oddly, was really enforceable. Dred Scott woke up the North. The Iraq War has failed, in part at least, because we had much less than half the forces that would have been necessary to make it successful.
Last Thursday, President Bush once again tried to drag the whole country in his wake.
“This vision for a reduced American presence also has the support of Iraqi leaders from all communities. At the same time, they understand that their success will require
"The success of a free
“Whatever political party you belong to, whatever your position on
“So tonight I want to speak to members of the United States Congress: Let us come together on a policy of strength in the
The consensus for which the President is calling obviously does not exist, even within his own national security establishment. Several press reports have now made clear that General Petraeus is virtually the odd man out among the senior military, most of whom want a rapid, substantial withdrawal from
No candidate as yet has articulated a real vision of a different foreign policy, as I tried to do here in my entry of April 14. The people and the Congress want the war ended, but they are not articulating what that would mean or where we would go from there. Depending on developments in the next year, the Democratic presidential candidate may find it more prudent not to do so. But the need to find a new rationale for non-intervention cannot be delayed after