“Those who out of cowardice use their wealth to pay Danegeld to the preachers of hate and destruction must be taught that this aggression will boomerang. A nuclear war stirred up against the ‘infidels’ might end up displacing Mecca and Medina with two large radioactive craters.”
— Fred Ikle, former undersecretary of defense,
in the Wall Street Journal, May 31, 2002
One year later, America waits. As I write this in mid-July, intelligence sources say that the level of Al Qaeda activity is as high as — or higher than — it was prior to September 11. People at the top of America’s national-security complex assume that another attack is inevitable. The only questions are when and by what means.
The “hope” is that it will “only” be a department-store suicide bomber or a truck bomb at some chemical plant. But policy makers are planning for the worst. Their assessments are based on intelligence-gathering capabilities that are much better and vastly more expansive than they were just one year ago.
In the political realm, the key dynamic is not the action, but the reaction. What happens when and if the next strike occurs? What forces will be unleashed? How will the strategic terrain be altered in the aftermath?
The short answer is that in the event of a second strike, once again the management of national-security policy will be be driven by America’s most influential — and least understood — wartime constituency. The historian and foreign-policy analyst Walter Russell Mead (whose excellent book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World [Knopf, 2001] discusses these issues) calls this constituency the Jacksonians, after President Andrew Jackson, the Indian-fighting populist whose ferocity in defense of American honor was legendary.
You know the Jacksonians. They live in the “red counties,” own guns, drink Budweiser, smoke (or used to smoke) Marlboros, and watch NASCAR on TV. They shop at Wal-Mart, and they made Rush Limbaugh the most-listened-to radio talk-show host in the history of the medium. They’re Christians, and they believe in the terrible swift sword of righteousness.
Jacksonians live in places like Tyler, Texas and East Carolina, along the Panhandle of Florida, and north of Eight Mile Road in Detroit. They think that Wall Street is a den of thieves. They elected George W. Bush in 2000. They impeached Bill Clinton in 1999. They elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 because they believed that Jimmy Carter had allowed America to be humiliated by mullahs in Iran. They supported the war in Vietnam and threw Lyndon B. Johnson out of office (and Hubert Humphrey as well), giving 57% of the vote in 1968 to Richard Nixon and George Wallace.
They rallied to John F. Kennedy in 1962 when he faced down the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis and elected Dwight D. Eisenhower twice to wage the Cold War. When they perceived that the Cold War was being lost during the latter years of the Truman administration, they supported the movement known as McCarthyism to crack heads at the State and Defense Departments. When riled, they have always been America’s most potent political force.
Today, they remain by far the most important political constituency within the Republican party. No Republican can govern without them. To date, they have given President Bush their almost-unanimous support. But that support will dissipate the moment they think that the prosecution of the War on Terror is circumscribed by concerns unrelated to American honor.
Jacksonians believe that the only acceptable outcome in war is the enemy’s unconditional surrender. They are willing to fight and to sacrifice to achieve that outcome. They do not believe in limited war. They like to close the deal. And they do so without mercy. When their country is challenged, they expect their leaders to fight with every available weapon. And should they perceive that this expectation is not being met, they will demand that it be done.
Mead says that another terrorist attack “could rouse one of the great storms of Jacksonian war fever that periodically change both American and world history. And if so, some of President Bush’s most demanding challenges will come from the tensions between the kind of war Americans instinctively want to fight and the kind of war forced on us by international realities.”
The war that Americans “instinctively want to fight,” of course, is Fred Ikle’s war. Jacksonians want to annihilate Al Qaeda and anyone or any state that gives it safe haven. They don’t care about the diplomatic niceties. They don’t care what the Europeans think. When, in a speech to the graduating class at West Point, the president endorsed preemptive military action against terrorists and states that enabled terrorism, he was telling the Jacksonians that he was one of them. The implications could be worried about after the fact. Doing it was what mattered.
Doing it is no easy task. The world does not work the way that Jacksonians believe it should. Diplomatic niceties do matter. Strategic alliances are important. World opinion cannot be ignored. But in the event of a second attack, Jacksonians will expect their president — the one they elected — to do what they view as necessary to defend American honor and prestige. And what they will view as necessary is total war.
John Ellis (firstname.lastname@example.org), a writer and consultant, is an authority on media, politics, and technology. Read his weekday musings on the Web (www.johnellis.blogspot.com).