As the nation prepares to observe the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, national security is poised to become once again the central issue in the electoral season. The question is hardly academic, given the revelation in August of a foiled terrorist plot to blow up American aircraft flying from London. Fresh from defeat in the Connecticut Democratic primary, Senator Joseph Lieberman seized the news to denounce the victorious Democratic candidate, Ned Lamont, calling him soft on terrorism because he had criticized the war in Iraq. Vice President Cheney, the war’s leading proponent, charged that Democratic critics did not understand the threat posed by Islamic fascists. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described critics of the war as appeasers of a new kind of fascism. The fall campaign, it seems, is off to an early start.
Many commentators think that national security favors the party of George W. Bush, who since 9/11 has made his conduct of the war on terror the signal policy of his administration. But does the security question really give an advantage to the Republicans? Where is the evidence, above all, that the war in Iraq, the administration’s single greatest antiterror undertaking, has increased our security?
By its unilateral action in Iraq, the United States has squandered the international support it received after the 9/11 attacks, support that continued through the initial military response against the Taliban in Afghanistan. By its conduct of the war, the United States has lost moral stature and galvanized its many disparate opponents. As for security, neither the United States nor the rest of the world is safer three years after our invasion of Iraq. Our attempt to forge a democratic society in Iraq was little more than a pipe dream, given longstanding sectional violence, ethnic and religious strife, and lack of democratic structures and traditions there. The costs in terms of casualties and civilian deaths have been enormous. Billions of dollars intended for the reconstruction of postwar Iraq have been wasted through incompetence and outright corruption. Now Iraq is sliding toward civil war or, depending on one’s analysis, is already engaged in one.
The question that rightly haunts the country is: Was the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq in 2003 the necessary next step in the global war on terrorism, as the administration claims, or was it a tragic and costly distraction from that campaign, as critics have charged? Until quite recently the president insisted that the war was necessary, and the public believed this. In the weeks leading up to the 9/11 anniversary, however, President Bush began to insist that he had never claimed that Saddam Hussein was connected to the terrorist attacks on the United States five years ago. With this very public about-face, it is quite appropriate for voters to ask, were the emotions aroused by the terrorist attacks simply exploited by those in the Bush administration who had already for years been intent on toppling Saddam Hussein?
If the war in Iraq has unleashed more terrorism than it has curbed, is the war on terror an abject failure? Can we trust those who defend a president who led us into such a debacle? Can we expect that a team that repeatedly misjudged the realities in Iraq will now be able to get it right? Can we trust leaders who refuse to learn from their mistakes? If the Republicans have failed the test of experience with a deplorable lack of self-awareness, so far the Democrats have been conspicuous for their lack of fresh ideas on how to combat the terrorist threat. They have also shown an exceptional lack of forthrightness about their acquiescence in administration policies. The November elections, of course, are for Congressional and senatorial seats, not for the White House. But Congress, by its compliance with the administration and by its persistent lack of oversight, has abetted the administration’s failures and made them harder to overcome. The public, however, does seem to get it. They are out ahead of their elected representatives. Recent opinion polls indicate a growing number of U.S. citizens favor withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. They no longer view Iraq as an important front in the war against terrorism.
If it is true that the jihadists think in centuries, we in the United States. cannot afford to think only in two- and four-year electoral cycles. Instead we must convince national leaders of both parties to use the campaign to engage in serious debate about how we shall confront the terrorist challenge in the years ahead. As we look back over the past five years, we need to learn from our mistakes, not defend them; clarify our understanding of the dangers we face, not simply scare ourselves into deficit military spending; and honor those who have died on the front lines by envisioning and constructing a more peaceful future.