Some Democrats think the Bush administration may suffer from increasing public doubts about its anti-terror initiatives. Yet the Democrats are taking a risk if they merely sit around awaiting further revelations about Sept. 11.
Second-guessing won't cut it, especially with an administration that could deliver an October surprise, such as the capture of bin Laden. Democrats need to delineate the meaning of security in a world of portable nuclear bombs, bioterrorism and established governments with long histories of terrorist associations.
The president's apparently hard-nosed national security policy includes several related items: 1) It funds sophisticated armaments both to protect the nation and destroy potential enemies. 2) It closely scrutinizes dissidents and jails noncitizen suspected of support for terrorism. 3) It has articulated a firm line between states that support and those who oppose the war on terrorism. 4) Even as it will hardly speak with its enemies, it grants virtual carte blanche to states deemed allies.
Every aspect of this agenda is suspect. Billions are to be spent on an anti-ballistic missile system with a dubious record of technological success when the greatest threat seems to come from our own technologies. George Monbiot points out in the March 31 edition of the Guardian, "The Russian state developed thermobaric bombs for use against Muslim guerrillas. Now ... Muslim terrorists are trying to copy them. The United States has been producing weaponized anthrax. In 2001, anthrax stolen from this program was used to terrorize America."
Despite potential nuclear weapons in suitcases and biological agents entering our ports, the Bush administration has opposed security enhancements for ports, chemical plants, and nuclear facilities.
The war on suspected terrorists has been similarly counterproductive. Isabel Hilton points out in the same edition of the Guardian that veteran FBI officials consider Guantanamo to be not only wrong but also a waste of our resources: "After two years of appalling conditions. ..., any prisoner - especially an innocent one - will despair. ... he may talk, but, as any psychiatrist will testify, the information is unreliable. What an interrogator may perceive as a breakthrough may simply be a prisoner in despair of the truth, offering false confession ... invented testimony." Hilton suggests that the only way you can know you have the right person is with a fair, independent hearing.
Not surprisingly, those deemed our allies are given a pass on civil liberties - with disastrous consequences. In a recent column in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Central Asian scholar Nicole Jackson reported: "After Sept. 11, the U.S. created military bases in key Central Asian states ... to combat terrorism in the region... Uzbekistan has received the greatest share of the U.S. aid. The ... bases are symbols that the United States is aligning itself with authoritarian states and providing training... to their repressive security structures. That fuels recruitment for extremist organizations, especially since they are the only avenues for dissent."
Not surprisingly, Uzbekistan has experienced ruthless terrorist incidents, some of which have even been staged by female suicide bombers, a phenomenon that must give pause to the most ardent terrorist profilers.
The administration now also claims that the invasion of Iraq compelled Libya's Moammar Gadhafi to renounce nuclear weapons. Yet Gadhafi made similar overtures during the Clinton administration, and the evidence suggests that he was motivated by domestic considerations.
Nonetheless, there is a positive lesson here. A state has voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons - in part because Western powers were willing to negotiate with one of the world's most unpredictable and frequently despicable terrorists. Terrorism, whether practiced by states or by dissident groups, is a crime that demands punishment and redress from governments and international organizations. But longtime British Labor Party figure Tony Benn recently quipped ("Democracy Now," locally on WERU) that many of the worst terrorist opponents of British rule ended up having tea with the queen.
For at least a brief point in history, the world became more secure when Soviet communism fell. But these accomplishments were not a consequence of unilateral United States willingness preemptively to roll back communism. They were a tribute to containment, a willingness to negotiate whenever possible, and the role that political liberties and equitable prosperity in Western Europe played in undermining the morale of Stalinist societies.
Columbia University historian John Patrick Diggins reminds us that according to Anatoly Dobrynin memoirs, "U.S. military spending was far less crucial than Reagan's coming to realize the importance of establishing good relations with Russia, a move that enabled Gorbachev to embark upon 'new thinking' ... and launch his reforms. Reagan himself, in his autobiography ... writes of changing his mind about the 'evil empire' upon visiting Moscow for a summit in May 1988. The Soviet citizens, he wrote, were 'indistinguishable from people I had seen all my life on the countless streets in America.'"
If even Ronald Reagan could learn to trust and verify, Democrats shouldn't be afraid to remind Americans that a world of simple black and whites is actually more dangerous.