Today's Threats; Yesterday's Ideology

An interesting part of the brouhaha last week over Karl Rove's comment that liberals wanted to "offer therapy and understanding for our attackers" after 9/11 was the reaction from the White House. Spokesman Scott McClellan gave the following analysis:

[Rove was] simply talking about different philosophies and different approaches. And I think you have to look at it in that context. If people want to try to engage in personal attacks instead of defending their philosophy, that's their business. But it's important to point out the different approaches when it comes to winning the war on terrorism.

Of course Rove's quip was a classic lob from the backlash right playbook: paint liberals as unconcerned about the threat of terror, soft on defense generally and a menace to the American people. Typical stuff.

But McClellan's response was worth a thought. After all, progressives don't need to impugn the motives of conservatives to make the case that it is the right that is uniquely unqualified to protect America against today's threats. It's not that Republicans 'hate America' or don't care about defending the nation. It's a matter of their philosophy: there are tenets of conservative ideology that are simply antithetical to providing Americans with security in an age of terror.

While Republicans aren't miserly when it comes to paying for defense, they really love expensive "network centric" systems for dominating a battlefield. In terms of homeland defense priorities, there's a similar dynamic: they're awed by the high-tech bells and whistles of cutting-edge technologies.

But a real and comprehensive defense against terrorism also requires heavy public expenditures in some rather mundane areas. Hardening soft targets, improving our ability to respond to attacks and securing dangerous weapons overseas before they fall into the wrong hands all run headlong into conservative thinking in some irreconcilable ways.

Probably the gravest threats out there come from an aging Russian strategic arsenal manned by poorly trained forces. A false alarm could trigger an accidental catastrophe--as almost occurred in 1998--or so-called "loose nukes" or "lose bugs" (in the case of biological weapons) could fall into the hands of terrorists.

A just-released Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, "based on a compilation of commentary by 85 expert groups on non-proliferation," estimates that there's a 70 percent chance of a nuclear, biological or chemical attack in the next decade.

The Nunn-Lugar program was established at the end of the Cold War to secure and dismantle Russian 'WMD.' Last year Sam Nunn, the former Senator and co-sponsor of the program, told a C-Span audience that the program could be completed--and expanded to other countries--for $20-30 billion dollars.

But President Bush's 2006 budget request for the program is just $415 million dollars. That's down more than 10 percent from what Clinton requested in his last year in office.

I asked PJ Crowley, Special Advisor for National Security under Clinton and now a Fellow at the Center for American Progress, why the President doesn't just pony up the cash and deal with the issue. It's about a seventh of what we've spent in Iraq to deal with phantom WMD, and he'd certainly have bipartisan support.

"There's no constituency for it," he told me. "Russians don't vote."

Crowley was describing a stunning triumph of political calculus over basic wisdom: those weapons aren't aimed at the Russians.

At a public hearing on counterterrorism on Monday, Sam Nunn testified that: "We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and the threat is outrunning our response."

Does that insufficient response mean we should question whether the administration is pro-terrorist? Should we ask why Republicans are so soft on defense?

Not at all--it's a matter of philosophy. A statement on the website of Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee (and an old-school Republican internationalist) cuts to the heart of why the right can't deal with these serious hazards:

...[F]rom the beginning, we have encountered resistance to the Nunn-Lugar concept... motivated by false perceptions that Nunn-Lugar money is foreign assistance or by beliefs that Defense Department funds should only be spent on troops, weapons, or other warfighting capabilities. We also have encountered latent and persistent Cold War attitudes toward Russia that have led some Nunn-Lugar opponents to be suspicious of almost any cooperation with Moscow.

A love of traditional big military spending, dislike and distrust of foreign aid and lingering paranoia among dedicated Cold-Warriors: all part of the right's ideological mismatch dealing with today's threats.

Another prospect that causes defense experts to lose sleep is a biological attack--or for that matter a naturally occurring disease outbreak. Most agree that it's not a matter of whether we'll face one in the relatively near future, but when.

In addition to Nunn-Lugar type efforts to secure "weaponized" bugs at the source, the key to defending against the threat is preparedness. In an open society, nobody, regardless of their political philosophy, has the guaranteed ability to stop one or two individuals with a willingness to die for their cause, so you have to be ready to respond to the attack before it spreads out of control.

We know with some certainty that we're not at all prepared for such an event. The government conducted a series of large-scale drills that provided a terrifying glimpse into what such a scenario might look like.

In 2000, local, state and federal agencies simulated a release of the plague in Denver, Colorado and public health authorities and their infrastructure were quickly overwhelmed. Three days into the simulation, the agencies noted ominously that: "Medical care is 'beginning to shut down' in Denver." Within a week of the outbreak, civil unrest broke out, as people panicked. As the drill progressed: "Stores were closed. Food supplies ran out because no trucks were being let into the state. Rioting began to occur." When the exercise was terminated, the simulated disease was raging out of control and had spread to other cities.

Think the administration might do something to head off such a scenario? Think again. Avoiding a biological catastrophe requires what's known as "surge capacity"--the ability of a healthcare system to handle an abnormally large influx of casualties. That surge capacity is not profitable--it comes from the kind of public health spending the right abhors. We currently have about a third fewer beds per capita than we did at the start of the "Reagan Revolution," and a third fewer than developed countries with universal healthcare systems.

I asked Terrence O'Sullivan, an expert in bioterror at the Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) how the party in power was doing since 9/11. He said we have a "crisis in biosecurity," and explained:

It's a local and state public health problem, first and foremost, and requires repairing the fragile public health and emergency medical infrastructures at those levels. Homeland Security money for bioterrorism countermeasures has been more than offset by cutbacks in government funding to public health, in part because of ideological antigovernmentalism and federal tax cuts at a time of massive spending on the Iraq war. In short, for biosecurity we're robbing Peter to pay Paul, and then some.

In other words, we remain vulnerable because of the administration's political philosophy.

That philosophy goes further, right to the heart of Rove's smear: conservatives love the politics of war--they love talking about it in breathlessly heroic terms, they love mission-accomplished banners and they love pounding their chests for the TV cameras. But that predisposes them to playing offense without enough attention to defense. By most accounts, Iraq is both a recruiting tool and a training ground for new terrorists, while back home we're left exposed.

Stephen Flynn, a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of America the Vulnerable: How Our Government Is Failing to Protect Us From Terrorism (HarperCollins, 2004), wrote in Foreign Affairs that, three years after 9/11:

The transportation, energy, information, financial, chemical, food, and logistical networks that underpin U.S. economic power and the American way of life offer the United States' enemies a rich menu of irresistible targets. And most of these remain virtually unprotected.

Flynn wrote about cargo containers not being inspected, weak security at nuclear and chemical plants and a host of other vulnerabilities and concluded: "the United States is fighting the war it prepared for in the twentieth century, rather than the one that is being waged upon it by al Qaeda."

That's about political philosophy, too. The right has an almost obsessive reliance on the private sector to do the right thing. But soft targets won't be strengthened by "market forces" alone. There's no profit in it, so the job requires heavy public subsidies. Which is why the right's ideologically constrained from hardening our vital infrastructure.

For all these reasons, progressives should be happy to have a debate with Karl Rove and his ilk about security and competing political philosophies. In fact, contrary to what Rove told that cheering audience of right-wingers, it is the failure of Democrats to argue that "preparing for war" was the worst possible response to 9/11 that allowed the administration to cram Iraq down the nation's throat.

The war narrative wasn't only flawed philosophically: the math just never added up. War was exactly the wrong response to 9/11 simply because the experts estimated there were somewhere between 2,000 and 20,000 potential al Qaeda terrorists scattered worldwide.

When 20,000 of your enemy are in one place then, yes, a military response is appropriate. With 20,000 spread around the globe, intelligence, law enforcement, special forces troops and perhaps the occasional air strike are the appropriate responses.

The Democrats have the blood of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis on their hands for being too shocked and awed by the right's tough-talk to stand up and say, "It's not a war!" The administration won't secure our homeland because it's not cheap or easy, and they don't have the money to pay for it because of their adventure in Iraq and their tax cuts. That should be an issue in 2006.

The best way to make it an issue is to propose rolling back some of those Bush tax cuts in order to pay for making America tougher. We need to be able to take a punch, not just throw them, and conservative ideology is a big part of why we continue to have a glass jaw, regardless of their bluster. It's just a matter of philosophy.

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