Elections in the age of terror

Posted: Feb 04, 2004 12:00 AM

The maximum danger to America is not from terrorists but from terrorists using weapons of mass destruction. Al Qaeda's murderous assault of September 11 was appalling. But being brutally objective, America could withstand several such attacks. However, assaults by nuclear or biological weapons could bring us to our knees. Scores of millions could be killed, and we could stop functioning as an economic and cultural entity.

It is that supreme danger that has correctly riveted the mind and energy of President Bush. And it is that fact that is being almost entirely ignored by the politicians and the media in their current obsession with the search for Iraq's WMD.

To defend against that doomsday horror, the president announced the necessary affirmative strategy in his State of the Union in 2002 -- Go after the weapons (and the rogue nations or others that make them), and go after the delivery system: the terrorists. (And, as a defensive measure, improve our homeland security and prepare to provide relief for the victims of any terrorist attack that gets through.)

The terrorists are the more elusive target because they have no fixed address. Running them all to ground will be a constant, generational task, mitigated only by changing the culture that breeds such monsters.

But neutralizing the sources of possible WMD is a project of more or less fixed dimensions (although al Qaeda is reported to be trying to concoct their own biological weapons).

Countries that have the capacity, and are reasonably suspected of potentially being willing to transfer them to terrorists, number only six: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Libya and Syria. Whether or not any of those six suspect rogue countries currently have large stockpiles of such weapons is irrelevant to America's security challenge. They must all be neutralized as threats: one way or another.

Now, we are in the election year, and it is time to judge the president on his performance in executing on his anti-terrorism strategy. How has he done in running down terrorists? How many rogue states are still threats? Have we made reasonable progress on homeland security?

So far in the election year, aside from observing that Osama has not been caught, the Democrats have not yet provided a considered assessment of progress -- or lack of progress. Neither have we heard the president make his case in detail for the progress to date he believes we have made running to ground the terrorists. Of course his greatest success was the Afghan War, which removed al Qaeda and the Taliban from governance of Afghanistan. The record is more developed regarding the neutralization of the WMD threat from rogue states. As a result of American and British military and diplomatic efforts since September 11, Libya and Pakistan seem to have changed their policy, for the time being at least, away from intentionally providing terrorists with WMD (although the divided loyalties within the Pakistani government require constant and increased attention).

Iran and North Korea are currently the targets of intense diplomatic efforts to eliminate their weapons. If diplomacy doesn't succeed fairly soon, the president in 2005 (whomever he may be) will be faced with dreadful war decisions regarding those two formidable nations.

And, to return to the current topic of such overheated political debate, Iraq is no longer a threat -- due to President Bush's decision to eliminate the Iraqi WMD threat by force of arms. Whether, at the start of the war, they had large stockpiles or not is largely only of historic interest. Saddam had developed and used such weapons before, could do so again and could never be trusted to be responsible. The assertion that we had him boxed in is fatuous. Neither the host Arab countries, nor the American political process could have tolerated the indefinite stationing of a quarter million America combat troops in the Middle East. As soon as they were pulled out, the United Nations would have ended the controls and Saddam would have been a totally free agent once again. The Iraqi threat could be solved only by military invasion.

Thus by neutralizing (for the time being) the rogue state threats of Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, President Bush is halfway toward the necessary objective of eliminating the rogue state WMD threat. Combined with a cowed Syria and an active diplomatic program targeted on North Korea and Iran's weapons, that would seem to be a record that President Bush should defend with pride.

Regarding the third element of the strategy -- homeland security -- the president has yet to describe in detail what he judges to be improvements. Clearly there are thousands of useful projects that have been started. The Democrats have begun to criticize insufficient cargo container searches and insufficient financial help to localities. This is a useful debate that needs to be joined in the coming months.

Elections are always messy, self-serving affairs. But they are more than that. They are progress reports a democratic nation gives itself on its path to realizing its aspirations. Now, in the first precedent-setting national election in the Age of Terror, we urgently need the most rational, focused debate of which we are collectively capable. The national media is burdened with a heavy responsibility to direct the election debate toward an assessment of our strategic strengths and vulnerabilities.