The Democrats' folly

Posted: Jun 18, 2003 12:00 AM

A few years from now, the current national reporting and commentary will be seen to be utterly blind to the reality of our times. In the 19 months since September 11, we have fought two wars and authorized the reorganization of much of our government. France has risen in an attempt to lead the Third World and Europe in explicit opposition to America. Confidence in the efficacy of the United Nations has shriveled. NATO is divided and adrift.

Some significant percent of the one and a quarter billion Muslims have been heartened by bin Laden's assault on America and infuriated by our response. At precisely this inopportune moment in history the technology of bio-engineering has emerged to place a more lethal force than nuclear energy in the hand, or near the hand, of any number of lunatics with a fanatical grudge against us. By any objective measure, we are defenseless to such a bio-attack, and ludicrously unprepared to respond to the aftermath.

At such a moment, the national media is focused on four national topics: (1) whether President Bush precisely described the exact level of certainty he subjectively felt about Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction; (2) whether, two months after major combat has finished, a country that has not known a semblance of even vaguely representative government in its 5,000-year history, and whose religious and ethnic sub-groups are being manipulated by most of its neighbors, is a functioning democracy -- or if there is still some disarray; (3) whether the wife of the former president has written an accurate memoir; and (4) whether a man in California killed his wife. We do have a free press. But as Oscar Wilde once observed, we are overcharged for everything these days.

To add to the sense of unreality, the Democratic Party seems to be staking the remnants of its national credibility on behalf of the crackbrained project of trying to convince the public that the most trusted, straightforward, honest president the country has seen in quite a while is actually a devious manipulator of mass opinion. Both the Democrats and the national media would be better advised to focus on the ominous near future and the policies best designed to cope with it.

For instance, last week, it was reported that President Bush had agreed to "fully fund" port security programs. By fully fund, the reporter meant the president had agreed to the added Democratic spending of $58 million. But, when added to the president's spending proposal, that higher figure will only buy inspection of 2 percent to 5 percent of the containers entering the country. That is only the percentage of "high-risk" containers. But even established shippers (who are not considered high risk) are highly vulnerable to penetration by terrorists. The Coast Guard has quietly suggested that at least 10 times the current spending level would be necessary. But that gets into real money, and it might force Congress and the president to decide whether we need port security more than we need, say, prescription drug subsidies. No such debate will happen.

Another example: The political system is not even publicly discussing how to prepare for adequate civil defense measures in the case of a major terrorist attack. I happened to sit on a panel discussing the topic at the National Defense College a few weeks ago at Ft. McNair. The experts pointed out that the same National Guard personnel who state and local law enforcement are relying on for back-up have a dual function -- being called up by the Pentagon to supplement the active military responsibilities. The Guardsman can't be at two places at one time. And, given how thinly stretched our active military is, we can be fairly sure many of the Guardsman will not be available when we need them. Unless you think September 11 was a one-time event (and no experts or senior government officials believe that), we ought to be planning for the inevitable. That might be a swell topic for the Democrats to champion -- but they are busy making rude slurs about the president.

The president and his advisors should not feel defensive about constructive criticism of the war on terrorism. As Winston Churchill told his people at the beginning of WWII, his government will make grievous errors and blunders that will cost many lives -- but they will fight on to victory. The American people don't expect this government -- or any government -- to get every strategy and tactic right. But they would be greatly heartened by a president who is constantly open to improving and modifying plans as events and new understanding dictate. A Democratic Party that made constructive suggestions on how to improve our future security (rather than pick over the bones of the past for cheap partisan advantage) would be a truly loyal opposition. And that would eventually pay off at the polls.