Politics is a matter of knowing where you stand. Usually, whenever a new controversy explodes, partisans—pundit and citizen alike—stake out their predictable positions at the moment of, or in advance of, the event itself. A bad playwright could script it all.
This war has changed all that, confusing and blurring partisan lines like no other event of our age. Whereas the Lewinsky scandal hardened those lines—conservatives went in for the kill, while many liberals who had been lukewarm on Bill Clinton suddenly became his smash-mouth defenders—the Iraq war has done the opposite. It has presented us with a smattering of conservative critics and doubters (Brent Scowcroft, Pat Buchanan), but mostly it has spread liberals all over the map, shifting alliances, disrupting dinner parties where everyone is in lockstep on every other issue, and inviting in the self-doubt and anxiety at which liberals so excel in the first place.
Was opposing the war wrong? Yes, if you opposed it because you thought it would become a quagmire. But not necessarily—so far at least—if you opposed it because you weren’t buying the whole weapons-of-mass-destruction thing. Yes, if you opposed it just because you despise Dubya and haven’t forgotten Florida. No, or maybe not, or it’s too early to tell—or something—if you feared that the administration would prove more adept at the un-building than the rebuilding.
Being a liberal who opposed the war and is now questioning that stance is tough enough. But over the long haul, it may be even harder for the liberal who supported it. Because what do you do now? Do you agree to the starkly unliberal general proposition that maybe force really is the only thing these people understand? Do you give your blessing to a Syrian campaign? Do those tax cuts—come on, you know they work okay for you, even though you don’t go around talking about it—suddenly start to look not so bad? Do you even consider voting for Bush?
It’s been a funky time in the city. The endless winter, the very serious case of local budget blues, and the smoking ban would have been confounding enough by themselves. Now add liberal postwar self-recrimination anxiety: the Baghdad Syndrome.