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War on terror not just another issue

By W. James Antle III
web posted September 15, 2003

Two quotes I read last week come to mind when reflecting upon the state of our nation's military campaign against terrorism, two years after 9/11. Toogood Reports associate editor Lowell Phillips wrote of the war on terror, "for that elderly caller to a local talk show it is an annoyance when 'so many people can't afford prescription drugs.'" As Irving Kristol once said, "a nation whose politics turn on the cost of false teeth is a nation whose politics are squalid."

The war on terror has become just another political issue. For a brief moment after those towers came crashing down and a plane struck the Pentagon, it looked as though our resolve to defeat al-Qaida was strong, bipartisan and above day-to-day political bickering. Now it is just another blunt instrument for presidential candidates to poke their opponents with. "Where is Osama bin Laden?" is posed less as a serious question than as a political battle cry of no more significance than "Where's Waldo?"

I've never seen those controversial ads that helped Republican Saxby Chambliss unseat then Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA) in 2002. If they truly questioned the patriotism of a man who left body parts behind in Vietnam or equated him with bin Laden, then that is indeed shameful. If instead they merely pointed out a policy difference and argued that Cleland's stand would have negative national security repercussions, that is perfectly acceptable (disagreeing with the Bush administration's policies in this area doesn't make someone unpatriotic, but criticizing them for this disagreement doesn't necessarily equal attacking their patriotism).

But it's worth noting that the argument that prompted those ads wasn't so much about differing strategies for protecting Americans from terrorism. It was about whether to unionize workers in the new Homeland Security Department. What was billed as one of the biggest innovations in government policy for the post-9/11 world was bogged down by a dispute in which distinctly pre-9/11 battle lines had been drawn.

I don't always agree with the way the war on terrorism is being prosecuted myself. I'm no raging military interventionist. I am skeptical, to say the least, of the neoconservative project of remaking the Middle East along democratic lines. I'm not sure that Iraq was the most logical place to focus our efforts, as opposed to getting a handle on the location of all Soviet-era nuclear weapons or ferreting out al-Qaida operatives in hiding elsewhere in the world.

Having said that, I also believe the notion that the United States can protect itself from terrorism by assuming the foreign policy profile of Switzerland, betraying Israel and erecting "fortress America" is a fanciful delusion. Even as I disagree with some of President Bush's specific policies, I think the general ideas guiding him are fundamentally sound: Putting the terrorists on the defensive by "bringing the war to them," regarding regimes that sponsor or knowingly harbor terrorists to be as worthy of destruction as the terrorists themselves and generally treating terrorism as an act of war rather than something to be dealt with by the criminal justice system. It is a war after all, though that does not mean that people of good will cannot have different views about how victory can be achieved.

So my purpose here isn't to launch into some jeremiad against all who disagree with the current approach to fighting terrorism. My problem is with those who seem to think that the government has better things to spend its money on than destroying those who would fly hijacked airliners into our skyscrapers to commit mass murder. What is a more appropriate use of taxpayer money and government power than the protection of American lives and property? Yet we already see the telltale signs that antiterrorism has been reduced to just another item in that grab bag of issues that politicians of opposing parties endlessly hector one another about.

As a critic of foreign aid boondoggles and mindless excursions into other countries' affairs that bear no relation to our own national interest, I'm often sympathetic when I hear people say, "We would be better off spending that money at home." (Although my preference would be to allow people here at home keep more of what they earn and spend their money themselves.) But it is maddening to hear that sentence uttered in the context of fighting terrorism. How soon we forget that terror can come home and that by defeating its most dedicated practitioners we are keeping our homes safe.

The federal government has not even adjusted its spending priorities to reflect the increased need to focus on its constitutional responsibility to defend the American homeland. Yes, there have been increases in defense and homeland security related spending. But social spending has gone up also. According to a Cato Institute study relying on U.S budget documents, non-defense discretionary outlays have increased 20.8 percent between fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2004.

When Mitch Daniels was President Bush's budget director, he wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post pointing out that when the country had been threatened in the past war budgets cut spending unrelated to national security. He wrote that non-military spending was cut by 20 percent during World War II, eventually including the elimination of such staples of the New Deal as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Youth Administration and the Work Projects Administration. Non-military spending was cut 28 percent in a single year in preparation for the Korean War. This was under liberal Democrat Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Yet there has been no such adjustment of priorities under the conservative Republican administration Daniels served in, nor the Congress that has mainly been controlled by Republicans during this time.

Instead we are continuing to promise new government programs and federal benefits, and many Americans seem impatient that defense-and-security-related expenditures are "getting in the way." Only two years after 9/11, some would like to return to the prosaic days of complacency that followed the end of the decades-long Cold War. Their logic seems to be that we went into Afghanistan and Iraq and kicked some butt. That should be good enough, right?

The reality is that battling terrorism will require much vigilance and an unwavering commitment of resources. This does not mean endless warfare and the colonization of entire regions. There is a sense in which critics who charge that the phrase "war on terrorism" is too amorphous and open-ended may be right. Terrorism is something likely to be with us well into the foreseeable future and, like crime, is probably something that can never be completely stamped out. We have seen how poorly past government wars against such intractable problems as poverty and drug abuse have gone.

But we must also look at the damage terrorists have wrought and the potential loss of life ahead if they continue their efforts unimpeded. Unlike the wars against poverty or drugs, securing the homeland against such catastrophes is in many respects a war in the literal sense. A fight with stakes as high as our national survival can't be an afterthought, a political priority somewhere between prescription drugs and after-school programs. Rather it is the foremost purpose of our federal government and the highest calling our public officials.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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