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A Month When Decades Happen
Like another October fifty years ago, this month’s events will shape politics at home and abroad.
There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.
—attributed to Lenin
AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER, President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, remarked that “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” It wasn’t a ridiculous statement at the time. But how does it sound now? Hamas’s terror attack against Israel, and its implications and ramifications, most of which we have yet to see, make Sullivan’s comment seem as if from a different era.
Which it was.
Meanwhile, at home, also at the end of September, all was not well in American politics. But the situation looked moderately stable: An agreement had been reached in Congress to keep the government open, as months before a deal had been reached to avoid a U.S. debt default. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy seemed to be staying afloat in difficult waters.
Until, in October, he wasn’t. October turned out to be the month in which the U.S. House of Representatives couldn’t elect a speaker, its sole constitutional officer.
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At the end of September, one could seemingly have some confidence that there would, despite challenges and hiccups, continue to be bipartisan support for Ukraine in Congress. That now seem far more questionable.
On the Democratic side, October is the month in which President Biden rose to the occasion and performed admirably. It’s also a month in which voters seem disinclined to reward him for doing so. And so Democrats continue to say they would prefer a different nominee in 2024, and they seem unlikely to get one.
And in October alone, Hamas has praised Vladimir Putin; aid from North Korea flowed to Putin, who also met with China’s Xi Jinping; and Iran had made it clear that it stands with both Hamas and Putin. October seems to have been a month in which today’s axis of evil was consolidating.
In October 2023, decades seem to have happened. And it’s not yet over.
FIFTY YEARS AGO, we had another October in which decades of history happened.
October 1973 saw the Yom Kippur War, a tense nuclear showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union, the oil embargo, Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation, and President Richard Nixon’s firing Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating Watergate. For a sense of the pace of events, here are just five New York Times front pages from that month:
The events of that month shaped much of the rest of the 1970s, often in a very negative way, from the Watergate fallout to a global recession to the fall of Vietnam to the Iranian revolution.
But the events also stimulated a reaction that arguably led to the strengthening of democratic guardrails in the United States, to an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1978, to economic liberalization in China and India, and after 1979 to a turn in U.S. foreign policy and a defense buildup that helped end the Cold War.
The months like October 1973 in which decades happen lead to all kinds of unanticipatable short-term and long-term outcomes.
From October 2023 could flow similar consequences, both for worse or better.
The decade to come could be shaped by Putin and Xi, by Khamenei and Hamas, by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. Or it could be shaped by the solidarity of the people of Ukraine under the leadership of Volodymyr Zelensky. By the ability of the people of Israel to rise above a failed and disgraced government to rally to the defense of their country against terror. By a competent and principled Biden administration, or by an opposition party in deep disarray that has embraced dangerous demagoguery.
On Thursday night, President Biden began his Oval Office address by saying “We’re facing an inflection point in history.”
He was right. But of course, inflection points can result in failure or success, triumph or tragedy.
The British commentator Matthew Syed recently quoted Winston Churchill, writing in the first volume of his World War II memoirs, The Gathering Storm: “It is where the balance quivers, and the proportions are veiled in mist, that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself.”
In October 2023 it feels as if the balance quivers, and the proportions are veiled in mist, and both the opportunity for world-saving decisions and very real risk of failure present themselves.