Mobilize the Homefront

By Gil Troy

Published May 09, 2003, issue of May 09, 2003.
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George W. Bush’s America — like its loyal friend Israel — has once again demonstrated the old saw that democracies are slow to anger, but once mobilized they are well-nigh unstoppable. Just as Israel did reluctantly and belatedly last spring, the United States has demonstrated in Afghanistan and in Iraq that you cannot defeat terrorism without crushing the terrorists.

But in Israel and the United States it is clear that massive firepower is only part of the equation. Despite all the talk about the American addiction to “hard” power and the European faith in “soft” power, ideas and symbols still count, especially for the world’s leading democracy. Aggressive military action against terrorists and their allies only works if combined with an effective ideological reorientation at home and abroad.

In Iraq, the movement for democracy will fail if it simply gives Iraqis the right to vote in a theocracy or another dictatorship. Effective democracy requires the rule of law. Equality, liberty and order can only flourish in a country where the notion of citizenship prevails, where there is mutuality and responsibility, not just entitlement and incitement.

While navigating these treacherous conditions abroad, President Bush must also pay more attention to the situation at home. Despite occasional calls for “sacrifice,” Bush has cast most American citizens in an unwelcome and passive role in the great drama of our time, the war against terrorism.

Being held hostage to homeland security pronouncements and wild media speculation is immobilizing and demoralizing. Instead of playing an active role, we have been reduced to targets and cheerleaders. While a relatively small number of Americans in the military and in public service — and their families — sacrifice much, most Americans continue with business as usual, interspersed with occasional, government-induced panics. American citizens should be supporting the troops more actively — even with symbolic actions such as donating phone cards so that no American soldier has to worry about the cost of calling home from overseas.

This need for an engaged and active citizenry is one reason why Bush’s commitment to a $726 billion tax break seems inappropriate. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson understood the importance of an active homefront. There has to be more for American citizens to do than buy duct tape and collect tax cuts.

Immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks, many Americans paused and reconsidered their values. They recognized that a life devoted to working and shopping was not enough. Similarly, more and more Israelis have begun searching for deeper meaning and a revived Zionism to respond to the terrorism of today, as well as to the 1990s’ mindless materialism.

Unfortunately, recent events have proved America’s two reigning ideologies to be bankrupt. The Reagan-Clinton era is over. The high-tech crash and September 11 cured Americans and should have cured politicians of the Republi-crat addiction to easy street and allergy to tough choices.

Similarly, what passes for mainstream progressivism these days has proved to be inadequate, emerging as delusional — insisting, despite the evidence, that terrorism results from poverty and not ideology; self-defeating — prematurely declaring failure in Afghanistan and Iraq; inconsistent — too soft on dictators like Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro while too harsh on America’s own leaders and good friends such as Israel; and bigoted itself — shockingly susceptible to the new virulent strain of antisemitism. Indeed, too many progressives are “useful idiots,” in the apt phrase Mona Charen’s best-seller has resurrected. Their opponents, however, risk being belligerent or mindless morons, which is no better.

Clearly, neither the politics of selfishness nor the politics of self-righteousness can work without sustained peace and prosperity. We need instead a new politics of selflessness, a new democratic activism. Having tried to transform himself into Winston Churchill — and having come closer to that goal than anyone ever had the right to expect — Bush now needs to mimic John F. Kennedy.

The president should mobilize Americans to think of others instead of themselves, to build community rather than indulge in consumerism, to aspire to be good citizens rather than vapid celebrities. Bush was right in promoting a “faith-based initiative” — we need an initiative based on faith in the American citizenry and American ideals. We all need to feel that we are helping solve the problems posed by the Islamic fundamentalists and their nihilistic ideology excoriating the West and celebrating death.

In his 1993 analysis of World War II, “A Democracy at War,” historian William O’Neill shows that the homefront’s scrap-metal drives, victory gardens and savings-bonds sales were mostly symbolic. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. recognized that selling bonds en masse would make Americans “war minded.” It worked; more than 80% of the country bought bonds. Such moves helped perpetuate the ideal of “Rosie the Riveter” during the 1940s, and built the useful “greatest generation” myth.

Americans, Israelis and liberal democrats all over the world are under attack, whether they acknowledge it or not. As in the 1940s, the threat is ideological as well as mortal. Neither Ariel Sharon nor George W. Bush seems particularly well-suited to this important task of leading an ideological and communal renaissance.

Perhaps, then, there is a deeper lesson. Let the leaders fight the wars. Let an active, motivated, ideologically engaged, newly idealistic and self-sacrificing citizenry help shape — and win — the peace so that our grandchildren will think of us as the latest greatest generation, which met — and mastered — its challenges.

The second printing of Gil Troy’s latest book, “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today” (Bronfman Jewish Education Centre), was recently released.

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