Politics & Policy

The American Mood

We're not out of the woods yet.

America’s friends and enemies often misjudge us. For our enemies, it’s sometimes a career decision. It’s perfectly understandable that others would misread us because we so often do it ourselves. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year on polls, focus groups, and surveys to analyze the tar out of American voters and consumers. They tell us a lot about politicians’ fates, the success of TV commercials, and such. But if you really want to know how Americans feel, you have to listen to country music. We’ve heard endless analyses of how we’ve changed since 9/11, but none do more than scratch the surface. I find a more profound analysis in the music of Willie Nelson, Toby Keith, and Darryl Worley.

Their hits, and other songs like them, are evidence of a significant American mood change. Many of us — having seen how we kicked tail in Afghanistan and Iraq — are feeling a sense of invincibility and power. And that is a mistake. We are neither omnipotent nor invulnerable.

This new American mood is something I haven’t experienced before. Out in Real America — where Maureen Dowd is unread, CNN unwatched, and the Dixie Chicks held to a higher standard of loyalty than Democratic presidential wannabes — Americans are thinking in muscular terms. You don’t read it on the op-ed pages, or see it on the network news. Some of it seeps into talk radio. But the one place you hear it loud and clear is in country music. The world would be a better place if Ayatollah Khamenei, Bashar Assad, Kim Jong-il, and their ilk tuned in. They might begin to understand.

The Afghanistan campaign began on October 5, 2001, less than a month after 9/11. The application of focused military power literally shook the mountains where the Soviet army had come to grief a decade earlier. Soon after, Toby Keith sang about how “soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye, we lit up your world like the Fourth of July.” That song was an enormous hit, and should have tipped the world off about America’s mood swing. Peter Jennings, of course, was first to misunderstand comprehensively. He ruled that “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” was too angry, tossing Keith out of the ABC July 4th Special. One line in the song promises the terrorists, “you’ll be sorry you messed with the US of A, ‘cause we’ll put a boot in your ass. It’s the American way.” Jennings received hundreds of boots in the mail. He got off easier than the Taliban, who thought we wouldn’t act against them — far less act decisively — for giving bin Laden his base of operation.

The Afghanistan campaign brought images of military power that evoked the cowboy frontier. The pictures of our spec-ops troops charging Mazar-e-Sharif on horseback was something out of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy. All it lacked was the Duke, and someone sounding “charge” on a bugle. Which is one of the reasons why the seeds of doubt sewn by the critics of the Iraq campaign didn’t germinate.

There again, Saddam misjudged us. For starters, he thought we’d allow ourselves to be endlessly tied up in the U.N. Wrong. Then he thought we’d turn tail and run if he successfully re-ran the Mogadishu playbook authored by the late Mohammed Aideed. A lot of the so-called “Saddam fedayeen” found out that the Aideed “technicals” — small pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the beds — are a really lousy match for an M1A1 Abrahms or an F-16. Throughout the Iraq campaign, we were flooded with more powerful imagery every day. “Shock and awe” over Baghdad, the Third I.D. going through Iraq at highway speeds, Ollie North — with his deadpan delivery — describing one incident after another where the Marines tore through the enemy and raced toward Baghdad.

These images served to do more than create a new level of confidence. They served to make America feel more powerful, and more eager to use its power.

Now, for five weeks in a row, Toby Keith and Willie Nelson have been at the top of the charts in the Washington area with “Beer for My Horses.” The message to the bad guys is that, “it’s time the long arm of the law put a few more in the ground,” and “when the gunsmoke settles…we’ll raise up our glasses against evil forces, singing whiskey for my men, beer for my horses.” It’s neither good poetry nor profound thought, but it is a strong message of American impatience, an assumption of invincibility. It’s a feeling that our friends and enemies need to deal with. They — and we — fail to do so at our mutual peril.

We hear long, hard, and continuously that we need to be patient with our putative allies, such as Saudi Arabia, and with the nations of Old Europe who want us to understand their point of view. In many conversations I’ve had with people outside the Beltway, I gather that Americans still appreciate that view, but have little left of the patience demanded of us. We have been trying to understand others nations for at least the 58 years since World War II ended. We haven’t done as well as we might, and we need to do more. But since 9/11, we have a right to be impatient. Americans realize we are at war, even if Howard Dean doesn’t. Nations that ask us to understand them need themselves to understand: it is as much their burden as ours. Just because we are — militarily — the world’s most powerful nation, that doesn’t mean that it is our burden, and ours alone, to bring peace to the world. Our first duty is to win this war.

These nations also need to realize that our impatience will boil over if there is another 9/11. Many of them will refuse to believe it, but in many ways we under-reacted to 9/11. If there is another, no American president will have the luxury of a patient investigation about how it happened. The Afghanistan campaign will seem like Sunday school to whomever had harbored or helped the perpetrators. And those nations — again, Saudi Arabia is the best example — who talk peace but pay for terror may not survive.

For us, it is a time to be more cautious, not necessarily patient. We have to remember that terrorism’s aim is not to kill. It is to intimidate so that men and nations bow to the terrorists’ political objectives. We are vulnerable, and any new attacks will be designed to do two things. First, they will be planned to interfere with Mr. Bush’s reelection. That means the terrorists will attempt to cause very large numbers of casualties again, or a land a huge blow on our economy, or both. The most recent warnings that al Qaeda may be able to use WMD against us in the continental U.S. is simply a recognition of reality.

If such an attack succeeds, the Democrats have been positioning themselves to benefit from it. All the talk of inadequate funding for homeland security — as if pouring money on Rainbow Tom Ridge will solve anything — is a predicate to their strategy. Bush will be blamed for protecting us inadequately. If the damage is sufficiently severe, and the economy tanks, they may even try to impeach him. If you think they can’t do that, think again.

— NRO Contributor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and is now an MSNBC military analyst.

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