Despite Bush’s Victories, Dangers Lurk on Horizon

The big story at the tail end of last year was Muammar el-Qaddafi’s announcement that he was shelving Libya’s program to build atomic weapons. He gave his reasons during a phone call to Italian president Silvio Berlusconi: “I will do whatever the Americans want, because I saw what happened in Iraq, and I was afraid.” America and Libya have been trading punches for years-backing the Chadian resistance here, blowing up an airliner full of civilians there-but the Libyan strongman saw a roundhouse coming and decided that it was time to return to his corner.

A debate immediately sprung up among us as to what had motivated the Libyan. Had he seen what happened in Iraq, and was he afraid? Or had he been finally persuaded by years of patient multilateralist diplomacy going back to the Clinton years? Undoubtedly, the answer was both. The wise leader always leaves his enemies a door through which to retreat, even as he presents them with something worth retreating from. If we hadn’t checked Saddam’s beard for lice, Mr. Qaddafi would still be herding isotopes in his Saharan labs. If we didn’t have diplomats on the case, he wouldn’t know where to place the phone call saying, “I surrender.” Speak perpetually, and swing a big stick, is the formula for success in this world.

So far, the Terror War is going according to the dreams of President Bush and Karl Rove. But we ask leaders to look beyond the day we are in to the day after. Always acknowledging that foresight is impossible, what should we want Mr. Bush to look at?

Assassins twice struck at Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, as the new year approached. Assassins have major effects, even on stable democracies. Half the men on Mount Rushmore were touched by assassination: Lincoln was shot, and Theodore Roosevelt became President because William McKinley was shot. How much greater would the effect of a successful assassination be in an impoverished dictatorship like Pakistan?

The problem of Pakistan has two aspects. Unlike Libya, Iraq or even North Korea, Pakistan has an established nuclear arsenal. Mr. Musharraf came to power with Islamist support, and his regime was sown with their allies and agents. He cleaned house some after 9/11, but many still remain (witness how close they came to killing him). Have they penetrated Pakistan’s atomic program? What technology or knowledge have they smuggled out? Has any rogue Saudi money greased the wheels? The administration must investigate such matters with care, but Congressional help might be useful. Another task for Senator Schumer?

Who will succeed Mr. Musharraf? Are elections in the cards, and who would win them? When Mr. Musharraf came to power, an old South Asian hand told me that nothing in the essential dynamics of the Pakistani state had changed. Nothing except this: that the people would feel one degree more alienated from their government, which was no longer even nominally under their control, and therefore more susceptible to visionary clerics. Republican government is indeed a terrible system; it’s just that the others are worse.

Wars can be fought with empty treasuries, if the credit of the government is good. That is why it is important not to take on needless obligations. Who will tell the Bush administration? The pattern of successful Republican Presidents is to cruise to re-election in a blaze of promises, throwing programs like carnival beads to every spectator. Thus Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984. President Bush has short-circuited the cycle by handing out goodies from day one in his first term. This is what he means by compassionate conservatism: being compassionate to voters, compassionate to interest groups, and therefore compassionate to himself.

Unlike liberal economists, I don’t count tax cuts as goodies. They return money to the pockets of the people who earned it, thereby stimulating the economy and ultimately sending more revenue to Washington. But then that revenue should not be squandered. A Republican Congress and a Republican President have been doing just that. The problem will grow worse in a second Bush term. Since the President will be a lame duck, he will have no power to discipline Congress. Since every second term is afflicted by disasters of some kind, everyone will be looking to save his own hide.

I had a view of another issue in the neighborhood of my weekend house on the Upper Upper West Side (i.e., the Catskills). This was the land where Milton Berle once reigned; yet when I went to the local Shop Rite, I saw only a few miserable shelves of gefilte fish. There was, however, a whole aisle of the unfamiliar produce of Mexico and Central America. Unfamiliar to me, that is-or, I should say, unfamiliar for now. By the end of Mr. Bush’s second term, I will be eating it. Wherever crops are harvested or brooms pushed, there are Mexicans. They come because they are willing to work for the low wages we offer-and which, in a bizarre, unspoken social contract, we have decided should not be offered to native-born black people. Along the state routes, I see the upper class of the new immigrants, for every convenience store that is not part of a chain is owned by Indians. They open early and work late, but their sons and daughters will go to Columbia and Brown.

Who could deny industry its just rewards? My attitudes toward immigration, if not my ideas, shifted after 9/11, when I reflected that dishwashers were targeted along with traders. Still, it is the case that the current wave of immigration, which is nearly 40 years old, obeys an economic rationale that is almost never acknowledged; it fails to follow even its own rules (hence the recurring discussions of amnesty for border-jumpers); and it proceeds without any conscious effort to turn scut workers into citizens via assimilation. Assimilation proceeds willy-nilly through pop culture. It also proceeds through spontaneous patriotism. Shouldn’t we use other tools besides Britney and war?