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Are We More Secure Now Than Four Years Ago?

March 18, 2004

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush has made national security the foundation of his reelection effort. To no one’s surprise, the self-proclaimed “war president” is running on a theme of “steady leadership for changing times.” Given the traditional advantage the GOP has enjoyed with voters on defense and national security issues, the formula for electoral success seems straightforward: “President Bush made America safer.”

Except that it’s not true.

John Kerry and the Democrats can ask the American people a simple question: are you more secure now than four years ago? As with the economy, the answer won’t be welcome news to President Bush.

Security and Myopia

This is not to say that the Bush administration is completely unjustified in making claims of progress in the war on terror and enhancing American security. In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime was quickly toppled, and its remnants sent fleeing to the mountains bordering Pakistan. While Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Mullah Omar remain at large, Al Qaeda’s leadership ranks have been damaged and disrupted, with up to two-thirds of key personnel killed or captured. The current Iraqi quagmire aside, Saddam Hussein’s regime has been overthrown, and the brutal dictator captured. In Libya, the Qaddafi regime has sought renewed relations with the West, abandoning its nuclear program and acknowledging culpability for the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing. (This sea change, however, is apparently due more to months of joint American/British diplomacy, rather than the deterrent effect of the Iraq invasion.) And at home, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and heightened preparation by state and local first responders mean, at least on paper, that the nation is better prepared to prevent or respond to domestic terrorist threats.

There is, however, a powerful and persuasive case to be made that the United States is now more vulnerable to attack at home and abroad under President Bush’s guidance. Bush’s wartime leadership has left America’s military overstretched, its network of alliances weakened, its credibility diminished, its international appeal in tatters and homeland defense in chaos. While the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq and an undersized American force hunts for Bin Laden, the Madrid bombings show Al Qaeda is still capable of delivering lethal blows. And all the while, festering threats and conflicts in Israel, North Korea, Taiwan, remain on a short fuse.

Insecurity Begins at Home

Homeland Security Chaos. American insecurity begins at home. To say that the Department of Homeland Security, originally opposed by President Bush, has gotten off to a slow start would be kind. As Michael Crowley reported in depth in The New Republic, DHS is struggling with its transition, its technology, and even its mandate.

First, there is “charter conflict” over the central role in coordinating and sharing intelligence data across the panoply of federal, state and local agencies responsible for homeland defense. Analysts at DHS’ directorate of Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection (IAIP) were to be on point to synthesize and analyze intelligence from the CIA, FBI and other sources. Inexplicably, President Bush created the quasi-independent Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), which reports directly to CIA head George Tenet and is housed in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The TTIC, and not DHS, is to be the clearinghouse of anti-terror intelligence. The result, as the Markle Foundation report overseen by former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale and former Aetna executive Zoe Baird described, is that “TTIC's creation has caused confusion among state and local entities, and within the federal government itself, about the respective roles of the TTIC and DHS.”

The challenge over the department’s mission is exacerbated weak leadership, understaffing, and interagency squabbling over the transition process. As Crowley reports, 15 people turned down the opportunity to run IAIP, seeing the impact roles instead at FBI, CIA and other agencies. The former head of IAIP, Paul Redmond, testified to Congress last June that he had filled only one-quarter of his analyst slots, “because we do not have the [office] space for them.” The new Border and Transportation Security agency (BTS), combining the Customs Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), has been slowed by the integration of processes, computers systems, and even weapons.

DHS hasn’t even been able to get the basics right. The coordination of a single, computerized terrorist watch list, seen as a key lesson of the 9/11 disaster, is months behind schedule and nowhere near the 6-12 estimate of the independent Markle task force. Last April, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge told a Senate committee that the database integration was proceeding smoothly, “I think we're fairly close to finalizing the consolidation itself.” Almost a year later, the lists are still not merged, and the task has been transferred from DHS to the FBI.

Given the central role of DHS in protecting Americans here at home, Crowley’s conclusion seems quite justified:

No one says merging 170,000 employees from 22 different agencies should have been easy. But, even allowing for inevitable transition problems, DHS has been a disaster: underfunded, undermanned, disorganized, and unforgivably slow-moving.

The Progressive Policy Institute concurred, giving President Bush a “D” in its detailed assessment last year, America at Risk: A Homeland Security Report Card.

Budget Cuts for First Responders. President Bush has spoken with pride about the progress of DHS and his commitment to enhanced preparedness at the state and local level.

If only it were true. President Bush’s FY 2005 budget trims substantial sums of money from terrorism first responders, crippling state and local governments already swimming in red ink. While the overall DHS budget grew roughly 10% to $40.2 billion, the Homeland Security grant program to states and municipalities was incomprehensibly slashed by $1 billion to only $700 million. Funds for SafeComm, a project to provide interoperable communication systems for first responders, were also gutted. Over $100 million in bioterrorism funds were also cut. It’s no wonder that even Republican Susan Collins, the Senate Governmental affairs committee chairwoman, called the DHS cuts “shortsighted” and regrettable.

At the state and local level, the response has been negative and loud. New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey sent a letter on February 27th to President Bush highlighting the decisive impact of the cuts. The United States Conference of Mayors added to the alarm, noting that funds the administration had promised for 2003 had not been delivered to 90% of 168 cities it surveyed in January 2004. Even firefighters, whose images the Bush/Cheney campaign tried to co-opt for its television ads, are big losers in the new DHS budget.

Not Fighting the Good Fight

The Overstretched American Military. America’s vulnerabilities at home are being compounded by the ever-increasing demands on a U.S. military that is rapidly reaching the limits of its capabilities.

Though the administration doctrine of preemption announced in its September 20, 2002 National Security Strategy document would only add to the responsibilities of the American military, President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld insisted that there would be no need for expansion of the armed forces, either through extended recruiting or conscription, even after an invasion of Iraq.

The result, as James Fallows details in the March 2004 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (“The Hollow Army”), the army has been stretched to the breaking point. Units, including the venerable 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, have had units moved from Afghanistan to Iraq, and now face months to replenish men and material to regain full fighting strength. The call up of reservists has reached unprecedented levels, with troops being told to expect at least one one-year deployment every four to five years. The Army is struggling to rotate its 130,000 troops in Iraq, units whose missions will be of indeterminate duration. One more major crisis, such as a confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear program, and the U.S. army would be strained beyond its limits.

Unfinished Work in Afghanistan. If there was ever a time since VJ Day when the American people were prepared to accept large numbers of U.S. military casualties to defeat a dangerous enemy, the aftermath of 9/11 was it. The Bush administration, however, launched the October 2001 assault on Afghanistan on the cheap. U.S. force levels in country did not exceed 10,000 troops, clearly insufficient for such a large, mountainous country. Bush and Rumsfeld chose instead to have dubious proxies fight for the U.S., with the Northern Alliance and a host of self-serving tribal warlords taking on the Taliban.

Two and half years later, the results are disconcerting, to say the least. While the Taliban was quickly toppled, Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain at large. Large numbers of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters escaped capture and confrontation, and continue to threaten American troops and the Karzai government from their bases in the murky border along the Pakistani frontier. The lack of American or NATO troops on the ground means that security cannot be provided outside Kabul; regional and tribal warlords remain in control. As a result, reconstruction is slowed, stability elusive, and long-term success far from certain.

Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds

U.S. Alliances in Tatters. Following 9/11, NATO in an unprecedented move invoked Article 5 of the NATO charter and stated that the attacks New York and Washington were an attack of NATO itself. AWACS planes flown by German crews took to American skies, the first time allied forces had been used to defend the U.S. homeland.

What a difference a year makes. France, Germany and Russia, all supportive of U.S. actions in Afghanistan, balked at the U.S. run up to the Iraq war. Unable to persuade “old Europe” with its case against Iraq, the Bush administration were left to cobble together a coalition of the needy, with Poland, Spain, Italy and Denmark substituting for the marquee NATO allies. While relations have started to thaw (President Bush met with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder after snubbing him for a year), the fall-out from the Madrid bombings leaves the EU on a path to chart a course on terrorism independent from the U.S.

American Soft Power in Decline. In the aftermath of September 11, global opinion and sympathy was clearly and solidly behind the United States. On September 12, 2001, Le Monde famously declared, “We are all Americans now.” The moral authority and military might the United States could bring to bear in the war against Al Qaeda was further bolstered by what Joseph Nye Jr. called American “soft power.” That is, the global appeal of American culture and democratic ideals enhanced the ability of the U.S. to lead, persuade, and cajole other nations to support American foreign policy goals worldwide. That intangible source of U.S. power was also enhanced by American leadership of an international network of organizations, treaties and regimes, which ensnared friends and foes alike in what Walter Russell Mead terms American “sticky power.”

That, too, seems like a distant memory now. Through its aggressive, unilateral posture and its dissembling on the Iraq WMD causus belli and its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, the ABM treaty, and other institutions, the Bush administration has alienated new and potential allies around the globe, and squandered a deep resevoir of good will. A new poll by the Pew Research Center shows the image of the United States is now strongly unfavorable across Europe. The declines from 2002 to today are striking, with U.S favorability dropping dramatically not only in France (63% to 31%), Germany (61% to 25%), Russia (61% to 28%) and Turkey (30% to 12%), but among coalition allies as well, including Spain (50% to 14%), Poland (79% to 50%), Italy (70% to 34%) and even the U.K. (75% to 48%). The Socialist victory in Spain in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings and Prime Minister Zapatero’s move to withdraw Spanish troops shows the volatility and weakness of the American position. America’s standing among key Muslim countries is, of course, weaker still.

American Credibility Undermined. A major factor in the world’s dim view of the United States is this administration’s almost complete lack of credibility. While the WMD panel will report next March, most of the world, if not most Americans, have concluded that President Bush’s case for war with Iraq, the need to rid Saddam of WMD, was without foundation. There was no covert Iraqi effort to purchase uranium in Niger. The Iraqi aluminum tubes were not for nuclear centrifuges. There were no mobile weapons laboratories.  (For details of the administration's deception on these and other claims, see Congressman Henry Waxman's "Iraq on the Record" report of 237 misleading statements made by Bush and his team.)

It’s not just a case of twisted intelligence and the contortion of facts. Bellicose American rhetoric is alienating allies and creating new threats. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech inflamed relations with Iran just as grassroots pressure for reforms was gaining steam. No doubt North Korea, a real WMD threat to the United States, sees its budding nuclear arsenal as its only deterrent to U.S. attack. It is no wonder that Europe and the U.S. do not see eye-to-eye on the Iranian nuclear program.

Israeli/Palestinian Powder Keg. Unlike President Clinton, from the beginning of his own administration, President Bush refused to put his personal prestige and political capital on the line to solve the Middle East question. The result has been years of violence and thousands dead while one of the core, underlying causes of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism worsens further.

American policy towards the Israeli/Palestinian question is rudderless. After 18 months of burying his head in the sand, Bush sent Anthony Zinni as his special envoy. That non-starter was followed by his “road map” for peace, which was essentially dead on arrival. The President’s “Greater Middle East Initiative”, a Marshall Plan “Lite” for the Middle East announced to great fanfare last November, has been backburnered after opposition from both Arab and European leaders. In the meantime, the administration debates whether or not to back Ariel Sharon’s unilateral moves in Gaza and the West Bank. President Bush continues to fiddle while the Middle East burns.

Head in the Sand Foreign Policy. The Bush administration’s policy of denial in the Middle East has been accompanied by a head-in-the-sand approach to hotspots around the world. Upon taking office, Bush made it clear that the U.S. would not support South Korean rapprochement with the North, a disengagement brought to a sudden end by the nuclear crisis on the peninsula. The tensions between China and Taiwan continue to fester, a situation President Clinton monitored closely and even dispatched the U.S. Navy to control. And the administration was clearly caught off guard in Haiti; its cowardice and delay left it no alternative but to sacrifice a democratically elected Aristide, a dangerous precedent for the United States.

Weapons Proliferation. Despite improving relations with Pakistan and a major speech by President Bush on the topic, the administration record on controlling weapons proliferation is not a pretty one. Starting early in his presidency, Bush underfunded the critical Nunn-Lugar program for managing and reducing the nuclear stockpile of the former Soviet Union. While dealing with the nuclear deadlock with North Korea and the on-again/off-again IAEA inspections in Iran, he has done little to follow up on the revelations of a nuclear network led by the father of the Pakistani atomic bomb, A.Q. Khan. Apparently, Presidents Bush and Musharraf have reached a quid pro quo; the U.S. will not crack down on Pakistan and the Khan network in exchange for full Pakistani support in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

In a nutshell, the United States is not more secure today than four years ago. Needed homeland security enhancements continue to languish while the American military is being stretched to the limit. The entire post-World War II American alliance system is in tatters while world opinion of the United States has plummeted to historically low levels. As a result of George W. Bush’s “steady leadership”, America is feared, but not respected, hated and not admired, and even among friends, a force to be resisted, not emulated or followed. Our victories of arms can’t make up for losing the battle of hearts and minds.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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