AFTER SEPT. 11, nearly all Americans rallied round our president. The act was so barbaric that we had little choice.
Yet some of us supported military action against the Taliban with grave forebodings. Among our concerns were these:
Treating the World Trade Center attacks as an act of war rather than a criminal conspiracy would have global and domestic repercussions that could not easily be foreseen or contained. One worry was wider war. Another was the risk of civilian casualties and political chaos in Afghanistan and elsewhere in South Asia. Another was the effect on the fragile Arab-Israeli peace process. Another was the erosion of civil liberty and tolerance at home.
Still another concern was that the Bush administration would wrap itself in the patriotic glow and ram through a domestic program that never would have commanded majority support on Sept. 10 and that America, after enlisting allies for a quick military campaign, would soon revert to dangerous unilateralism.
Much of this has come to pass. Though the war itself yielded a swift military victory against the Taliban, the aftermath vindicates many of our doubts about policies foreign and domestic.
America has not yet attacked Baghdad, but influential people in the administration think we should. The Bush administration has framed the security threat so broadly as to yield what every quasi-dictator craves - a state, seemingly, of permanent low-level warfare that frightens the citizenry and trumps dissent.
Now, emboldened by military triumph and by bloated public opinion polls, President Bush has stumbled. By lumping Iraq, Iran, and North Korea together with Al Qaeda as an ''axis of evil,'' Bush has managed to create an equally improbable axis of worry about America's reliability if not our sanity. As a Frenchman, Antoine Boulay, famously said after zealous revolutionaries executed a popular duke, this was ''worse than a crime; it was a blunder.''
Blunder comes from swagger. Not only has Bush set back the process of detente in Korea; he has done something the ayatollahs were unable to do - given new life to the anti-American hard-liners in Iran.
These nations are not even allies, much less an ''axis.'' When Bill Clinton left office, Iran was gradually liberalizing and North Korea was on the verge of negotiating peace with South Korea. Just as we can't practically ''nation build'' every benighted society on earth, we can't costlessly blow away every dictator. Nor can we lead an alliance if we are terrifying our allies.
Since Sept. 11, the general assumption has been that Bush is untouchable on foreign policy but politically vulnerable on the economy. Both premises need drastic revision.
In truth, the Democrats have been remarkably feeble about challenging Bush's domestic priorities. Until the opposition party grows some spine, his program, unpopular as it is, will win by default. And now that the shooting war in Afghanistan is over, it's time for Congress to revoke George W. Bush's free pass on foreign policy as well.
The axis-of-evil declaration, at last, has a few brave souls in Congress voicing some doubts. Several moderate Democrats have publicly objected. Democratic Representative Jim Moran of Virginia called it ''reckless,'' according to Roll Call. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska chided the president for not following his hero Teddy Roosevelt's dictum to speak softly and carry a big stick.
Bush's plans for the post-military phase of the campaign against terrorism are fair game for debate, and there's plenty more to challenge. The Afghan operation was brief and relatively inexpensive. So why is the Pentagon getting a blank check?
Why, with the surplus gone and the budget in deficit, are we still giving the richest 1 percent of Americans a tax cut that will imperil Social Security? Why, when even President Bush says Americans deserve secure health care, is his budget cutting hundreds of billions of dollars out of Medicare?
The Taliban is gone, yet the world is, if anything, a more dangerous place. America today is less free and not noticeably more secure. Are we truly pursuing the best course?
For all the commentary about how much George W. Bush has grown in office, there is still reason to worry about how well he understands geo-politics and how clearly he thinks when he is momentarily untethered from the adults around him.
In a democracy, even a president with 83 percent approval ratings is not beyond challenge. The remarkably foolish axis-of-evil comment - Bush's own idea - should remind us that this president does not walk on water. The Afghan emergency is over; so is the moratorium on dissent.
Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company