Five Ways the Conventional Wisdom May Be Wrong

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STUART RAMSON/AP

Trucks take loads of debris from the World Trade Center disaster

As soon as the strike against the United States was complete, conventional wisdom started to form. Like most assumptions, the conventional wisdom is not without foundation, but it could prove to be wrong. Here's how:


1. The Strike Will Hurt the Economy.

Potentially, yes. But that's by no means guaranteed. The Gulf War saw a dramatic drop in consumer confidence and it stands to reason that spending by individuals — the backbone of the economy, and the key to recovery in the current slump — will be stymied for awhile. But it's also true that war often helps economies, a point 60s protesters made repeatedly. World War II, economic historians agree, helped pull America out of the Depression. The price tag of this new war — whether it's the rebuilding of lower Manhattan or renewed defense spending — could turn out to be the elusive stimulus package everyone was talking about just a week ago. It's gruesome to think, but this sickening event might actually help the economy by injecting tens of billions of dollars into it.

2. National Missile Defense is dead.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Immediately after the bombing, liberal politicians and commentators began suggesting that this would hurt President Bush's plan for a national missile defense. Their logic: if terrorists can wreak such havoc with airplanes and box cutters, what good is a massively expensive system designed to swat back incoming intercontinental missiles? "This is going to raise a lot of questions about missile defense," Democratic Senator John Kerry told TIME. But it's not hard to imagine a different scenario. Suddenly the threat of rogue states and massively organized terrorist groups getting hold of a missile doesn't seem as farfetched. Indeed, the Bushies will argue that this time it was a plane but next time it could well be a missile. Americans may well want to be protected against everything — planes and missiles. The NMD debate echoes the old debate about crime — do you have gun control or tougher penalties on criminals? Americans largely opted for both kinds of protection. They may do so again.

3. This will be a long, twilight struggle.

Maybe. It's hard to see terrorism just going away after we, say, flatten Afghanistan. "What are we going to do?," asks a Democratic Congressional staffer, "Turn Kabul from rubble into smaller rubble?" Still, it's not impossible that we're overestimating the enemy just as we did in Kosovo and Iraq where we vanquished the opponents with relative haste. (True, Saddam clung to power; but the fears that the Gulf War would leave tens of thousands of American troops dead were quickly eliminated after 100 hours of ground fighting.) It may be that the Bin Laden network can be crushed with relative haste. Indeed, other terror groups have been crushed before. Heard about the Red Brigades lately? The Bader Meinhof gang? It'd be foolish to be pollyannish about the coming war but it would be just as myopic to assume the worst.

4. Americans will support the war.

It seemed like a truism just a month ago that Americans were hopelessly divided — equipoise between the parties in Congress, Red States v. Blue States. Now it seems just as obvious that the country is united. And it is, of course. But how long will the consensus last? Americans will surely back Bush when the first bombs fall. But there's no guarantee that the many measures that might follow — occupying Kabul, a military draft, restrictions on travel— would garner equal support. At the moment, Americans are admirably bracing themselves with a "Saving Private Ryan"- style grim determination to meet the enemy head on. But don't assume that that consensus can't crack.

5. This will bring Israel and the U.S. Closer.

Israeli politicians are already being quoted as expressing some relief that now the United States will be drawn even closer to the Jewish state. The thinking goes that both countries are common victims of Arab terrorists and both will stand stand together, side by side. That makes sense. I would bet U.S. public support for Israel is probably as high as its been at any time since the Gulf War or perhaps even 1967 or 1948. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. But it's not impossible to envision a different scenario — a feeling in a few months time that our relationship with Israel is what got us into this mess in the first place. That assumption is, of course, ludicrous. The fundamentalist terror groups hate the West and modernism and would despise us even if there had never been an Israel. As Tom Friedman has noted, they don't hate our policies. They hate us. But it would be presumptuous to believe that American support of Israel can't waver down the road, especially if Americans grow weary of the fight that produces extensive American casualties. (Okay, this assumes that there is a long, twilight struggle.)


Of course, conventional wisdom becomes convention for a reason: it has some real foundation. It may prove true again. But the conventional wisdom last Monday was that America was at peace, life was pretty grand, and the Manhattan skyline was pretty as a postcard.