been whispers of change in the wind, the natural force that Robert
Frost, in a poem called "Clear and Colder," called the
"season-climate mixer." One of them was the way the
nation marked the 2,000th death in Iraq this autumn; no such ceremonies
of sadness marked the passage of that boundary during the Vietnam
or Korean wars. One of them was the way Congress is beginning
to show signs of impatience with the open-ended nature of the
commitment to Iraq; there is more national impatience now than
there was at a similar period of the Vietnam conflict. And one
of them was the startling demand by Pennsylvania Rep. John P.
Murtha Jr. -- a decorated Marine (a Bronze Star and two Purple
Hearts) who fought in both Korea and Vietnam (and who is a retired
Marine reserve colonel) -- that the United States start withdrawing
troops from Iraq.
out that these are not random occurrences in a season of contention,
but something more than that. Americans are growing more skeptical
of involvement abroad. (Historically that's more of a Republican
impulse than a Democratic one, by the way.) And though it's hard
to resist the temptation to say that the Iraq war is the reason,
it's best to remember that Americans, who were late to join both
world wars, have never relished the world stage. We have always
found plenty to fight about at home.
data shows that 42 percent of Americans believe that the United
States should "mind its own business" internationally
-- statistically pretty much identical to the 41 percent who said
the very same thing in 1976. Lest you think that comparing American
views a year after Saigon fell and nearly three years into a controversial
war is manipulating the number, please note that the percentage
of Americans who felt that way in 1995 -- when nothing much was
going on internationally and the United States was sitting proud
and pretty atop a one-superpower world -- was 41 percent.
other data in a hefty report from the Pew Research Center for
the People and the Press and the Council on Foreign Relations
paint a picture of a nation weary of the world's worries -- a
feature of contemporary American culture that will surely shape
next year's midterm congressional elections and the presidential
elections that follow two years later. President Bush may have
run as a wartime president two years ago, but the terms of engagement
in 2008 will almost certainly be different and, if the war is
still going on, even more acrimonious.
tell us anything interesting, and even more rarely do they tell
us something significant, but this time the surveys tell us something
that is both interesting and significant. They say that most opinion
leaders believe the United States will not establish a stable
democracy in Iraq -- but that a majority of the public thinks
the American mission in Iraq will prevail.
No such polling
was undertaken during the Vietnam years, but it was clear that
in the early days of the conflict in Southeast Asia, prominent
Americans believed deeply in the U.S. effort. Faulty memories
and folklore have warped the way many Americans understand and
remember the Vietnam period, but it is important to note that
the debate in those years wasn't over whether the war was worthwhile
or moral; almost everybody agreed that it was. Instead the dissent
came from those, including prominent members of the establishment
press, who believed the United States was failing in a noble cause.
David Halberstam, the young New York Times reporter who
so angered President Kennedy, didn't believe the American role
in Vietnam was immoral. He believed the way the American role
was being played out in Vietnam was incompetent.
This is a
different situation entirely -- one of many, as I have argued
repeatedly, that shatter the (frequent and facile) comparisons
between Vietnam and Iraq.
What is not
different, though, is that an American war in a land far away
-- against an opponent hardly anyone at West Point or Annapolis
or Colorado Springs was trained to fight -- is dividing Americans.
The pre-Thanksgiving plea for peace from a man of war like Mr.
Murtha only heightened the level of contention.
An Ohio congresswoman
raised questions about Mr. Murtha's courage, setting off a furor
that, like the time Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri called Henry
Foote of Mississippi a coward during the Senate debate over the
Compromise of 1850, nearly brought grown men to blows. The word
"pathetic" was hurled around the chamber. Liberals who
regarded Mr. Murtha as a recondite apologist for military interests
embraced their new ally as an eminent sage. Within hours, conservatives
were deriding Mr. Murtha as a Keystone version of Howard Dean.
It took President Bush himself, speaking in Beijing, to cool the
dispute. He pronounced Mr. Murtha "a fine man, a good man,"
though clearly, in the president's view, a misguided man.
on Capitol Hill did what Washington contretemps so seldom do in
an age of Astroturf grass-roots: reflect the public back home.
Americans have strong feelings about this war and their role in
the world, and those strong feelings have led to frustration.
Even the people who say they absolutely, positively know what
to do aren't absolutely, positively sure of the implications of
those views. They may have their doubts, but do not doubt for
a minute that this is a moment of transition for America in the
world. Americans may not be withdrawing from Iraq, but slowly
they are stepping back from center stage on the globe.