Like Bush's War on Terror, this conflict is open-ended and a potential disaster
Joe Biden made two bold moves in the past month. The first was bringing an end to America’s prolonged military presence in Afghanistan. The second was a set of aggressive new steps to contain COVID-19 — notably, a vastly expanded vaccine mandate. Both have stirred considerable controversy, especially from the Republican opposition. But while the Afghanistan withdrawal was consistent with Biden’s long-held positions, the broad new mandates contradicted his and his administration’s prior statements on the subject.
Critics are decrying Biden’s Covid measures as an unprecedented assault on civil liberties. As we pass the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, the event that triggered the Afghan war, such criticisms should have historical resonances for anyone who lived through the attacks and their aftermath. In late 2001, the public’s new awareness of the dangers of global terrorism prepared the way for dramatic changes to the government’s role in Americans’ lives, such as the enhancement of security measures in airports and government buildings and the expansion of communication surveillance. Similarly, the persistence of the pandemic is now leading to infringements on rights that even those now imposing them saw as politically impracticable less than a year ago.
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In the months following 9/11, the few who raised concerns about the rollback of civil liberties belonged mainly to the political left. Today, opposition to vaccine and mask mandates is concentrated on the right. The American Civil Liberties Union, which was critical of the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism agenda, once also opposed vaccine requirements. It has now reversed its position on the latter measures — in lockstep with its liberal allies and donor base.
US politics has become intensely focused on combating one particular source of danger, with other values and concerns relegated to secondary status. Moreover, as with the Wars on Drugs and Terror, official rhetoric now implies that nothing short of total eradication is acceptable. Even when they do not explicitly advocate Zero Covid, today’s pandemic crusaders rarely offer a sense of what a tolerable level of risk from the virus would be. Victory is once again a moving target.
Plenty of evidence points to the public health benefits of increased vaccine uptake. Whether the Biden administration’s aggressive approach will achieve this end remains uncertain, in part due to the political backlash it has already generated in the wary parts of the population. Blaming the continuation of the crisis on the unvaccinated, as Biden has, may well exacerbate this backlash.
In any case, even with far higher vaccination rates, the virus will remain endemic, albeit less life-threatening. Rather than making clear what ultimately defines success in the War on Covid, Biden has now invoked a friend-enemy rhetoric reminiscent of George Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’, but with the enemy now consisting of domestic partisan enemies in Red State strongholds. In this sense, even as he has finally brought America’s ‘Forever War’ to a close, Biden has escalated a new war that is comparably vague in its aims and endgame.