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The Next Phase

02/08/02 12:00AM By Olin Robison

There is mounting evidence to suggest that we are now, some five months after the tragic events of last September, beginning slowly to move into a second stage of reaction.

Ever since that horrible morning, we have been in a period of remarkable national unity, a time during which the President and his administration have lived in an unusual criticism free zone. Even those who strongly disagree with the what the President has said and done have for the most part refrained from criticism, both out of a sense of patriotism and, in some cases, not wishing to be thought unpatriotic.

But this is unnatural in a vibrant and complex democracy, and it will definitely end; the only question is when. Many of those closest to the President are well aware of his charmed interlude, this political state of grace, if you will, and they are pushing hard to get as much of their political agenda in place as possible.

This could be seen as cynical opportunism or, if one is more favorably disposed to that agenda, a political golden moment.

It is definitely a golden moment for defense contractors, and it is roll-back time at the Justice Department, where, in the name of homeland security, conservatives have been taking back turf that had been conceded to more moderate elements during recent years.

The Democratic leadership is yet to find its voice, so far not even being able to argue publicly against the most egregiously partisan budget and tax proposals of the Bush crowd. Their frustration is monumental.

The international version of this political state of grace for President Bush began to break this week, and one senses that there is much more to come.

On Wednesday, the French Foreign Minister said what a lot of Democrats would like to say but cannot because to do so is too risky politically.

The French Foreign Minister called the US war on terrorism "simplistic." He said, "We are friends of the United States...and we will remain so. But we are threatened today by a new simplism that consists in reducing everything to the war on terrorism." He spoke for a lot of Europeans, maybe even most.

The British Foreign Minister this week tersely noted that the President's State of the Union speech and most of his other current public statements are clearly aimed at next November's election. The White House feigned indignation at this until Karl Rove, the President's Chief Political Strategist, told a television interviewer this week that the Republican strategy this fall is "to run on the war."

Such foreign criticism is going to pick up steam rapidly now. I personally wish that it would pick up steam at home as well. Lack of public debate on major issues is not a healthy state of affairs --especially if it goes on very long. It is not unpatriotic to differ with the President - especially when the incumbent crowd seizes a moment of unusual national unity to push aggressively the same agenda they would have pushed anyway.

It is time to restore the public debate.

This is Olin Robison.

--Olin Robison is President of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria. Olin's commentaries are also available in audio online at the Salzburg Seminar web site at www.salzburgseminar.org.

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