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The politics of war

| Sunday, Oct. 21, 2001

After George H.W. Bush's stunning February 1991 Persian Gulf War victory, which produced approval ratings in the Gallup Poll of 89 percent, who would have thought the then-president would go on to lose re-election 21 months later with the lowest vote percentage of any president in 70 years?

What's going to happen in Central Asia and our newly declared war on terrorism• The range of possible scenarios literally boggles the mind.

When former President Bill Clinton's job approval ratings dropped to 37 percent in June 1993, and his party five months later ceded control of the House and Senate (losing 52 seats and eight seats, respectively), who could have imagined that he would have been easily re-elected in 1996 with an eight-point victory?

During the Monica Lewinsky affair, when the seemingly devastating tapes of Kenneth Starr's investigation interview with Clinton were about to be released and most thought a presidential resignation was imminent, who would have dreamed that Clinton would end up serving out his full term, leaving office with a 66 percent job approval rating?

For that matter, five months ago, at the height of the search for Chandra Levy when rumors of California Rep. Gary Condit's impending resignation were rampant, who would have thought that he might seek re-election• Or that it wasn't such a big story after all?

In each of these cases, one course of action looked fairly obvious to all but the most starry-eyed backers of those men, yet circumstances took a different direction - one thought to have been extremely unlikely before.

Now let's think about something a little more difficult. What will be the size, scope, intensity and duration of the impending fight in Central Asia against Osama bin Laden• What are the implications• Will there be more terrorist attacks on American citizens at home or abroad• If so, how many will there be• How much damage will they do, and what will the public reaction be• Rarely, if ever, have Americans faced a challenge or crisis as open-ended as this one, a dark alley that leads to who knows where.

SEVEN SCENARIOS

In trying to organize a framework to study the domestic political implications of what might happen, I worked up seven scenarios. Then I sent them to a friend who is a foreign policy expert, acknowledging in my message that there were thousands more permutations that could develop. The return e-mail suggested that I left out another real possibility: The tenuous Pakistani government could fall and be taken over by Muslim extremists, allowing bin Laden to take refuge in Pakistan and raising the possibility of a war between the nuclear nations of India and Pakistan. I thought I had already described a nightmare scenario, but then he comes back with Armageddon.

This exercise underscored the futility of even attempting to predict any political consequences for 2002. There are simply too many enormously different variables for anyone to adequately get their arms around them. If the seemingly obvious proves unpredictable, what can be said about the unfathomable?

What's more, even if we knew a little more about what will happen, who's to say what the public reaction would be• Some point out that Americans are more united today than at any time since Pearl Harbor was attacked. But does anyone remember what happened in the 1942 midterm election, just 11 months later• President Franklin Roosevelt and his Democratic Party lost 55 seats in the House and nine seats in the Senate.

At this point, it seems like the person who changes the light bulbs in the CIA director's office knows as much as the director himself about what will happen next. We have entered uncharted waters, nobody can say where we are headed, and anyone who says they can is flying in the face of U.S. political history.

Charlie Cook is a political analyst and columnist for National Journal.

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