Archive for Sunday, October 7, 2001

Changes may ultimately benefit U.S.

October 7, 2001


— Across the nation and across the globe, huge changes in domestic politics and geopolitics are beginning to unfold.

Customarily, wars set great transformations in progress; World War I, for example, brought the end of the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman empires and set in motion forces that eventually would topple the British empire. The American war against terrorism of 2001 has hardly even begun, but already the potential for massive realignments and new forces is apparent.

For a nation that, like the British empire, instinctively regards any instability as a threat to its prerogatives, the possibility of such massive upheaval is often regarded as disquieting. Big powers do not like big periods of uncertainty.

But the status quo that prevailed before the Sept. 11 attacks didn't only contain the hard wiring for American economic, military, social and cultural power. It also contained the preconditions and precursors for the terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. While American economists, financiers, strategic thinkers and diplomats may look at this new uncertainty as unsettling, it may in fact contain the seeds for a new world that enhances rather than diminishes American security.

In truth, Americans are no less secure at the beginning of this month than they were at the beginning of last month. The threats that are present today biological and chemical terrorism, nuclear attacks, new threats as yet unnamed or unknown were present in early September; American policymakers and the public simply averted their eyes from them then. Though it is true that America's vulnerability to terrorist attacks is no longer a tightly held secret a vulnerability that could invite further attacks it is true that some of the ripples from last month's attacks already are altering the world beyond the terrorist targets.

At home, the detente between Democrats and Republicans may be fleeting; the two parties' disagreements on economic issues, particularly the question of who should benefit from an economic stimulus and from adjustments in the tax burden, are too great for the rapprochement to endure.

But the Sept. 11 attack thrust House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Democratic House leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri into a bunker where they were forced to do something they had avoided for more than two years: talk to each other. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that Hastert and his GOP predecessor, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, had not spent more than an hour in cumulative conversations with Gephardt in the last five years.

That's changed. Gephardt aides actually now use the phrase "really great" to describe Hastert. The two men now speak at least once a day a situation that has diminished Gephardt's sense of isolation even as it has diminished Hastert's reliance on the support of Republican House whip Tom DeLay of Texas.

Abroad, many changes that could redound to the United States' benefit may already be in motion.

In Cuba, President Fidel Castro delivered a speech describing terrorism as "a dangerous and ethically indefensible phenomenon, which must be eradicated." Those remarks, coming from an American irritant for three decades, startled the State Department. In China, where tensions with the United States were escalating all year, the communist government has expressed its opposition to terrorism and has been grateful for the demonstration that America's deadliest foes may be in terror cells, not Beijing.

In Russia, which has resented American economic power and military superiority, the seeds of a new partnership have been cultivated by President Vladimir V. Putin, who has offered the use of Russian airspace for planes carrying humanitarian cargo and has cleared the way for the central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union to provide American military pilots with the use of airfields. "We, of course, are ready to contribute to the fight against terror," Putin said.

In Libya, Syria, Sudan and even North Korea, often considered hard-line American opponents, there are indications that governments are willing to share intelligence with American authorities. The terrorist attacks may have awakened all of them, including the United States, to the notion that they did not have to sow their antagonism indefinitely.

In Iran, where in 1979 Americans first encountered the resentments of radical Islam, there is evidence to believe an opening between Tehran and Washington is at least not out of the question.

In less than a month, many of the reliable guideposts for looking at domestic and foreign affairs have been toppled. Much of the new world order may look terrifying to Americans, but behind the clouds there may be what Winston Churchill liked to call the sunlit uplands. Besides, there is no going back.

David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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