Skewed Priorities Make Us Less Safe

Two years ago this week, our country suffered a momentous disaster that ought to have prompted a sharp change in the Bush administration’s foreign and domestic security policies.

On that awful day-after standing outside my home and watching the World Trade Center fall-I hoped that George W. Bush would reconsider his rejection of America’s multilateral traditions. That day, I wrote a column suggesting that if the President and his advisers grasped the dimensions of the threat posed by Islamist terror, they just might abandon their unilateral illusions. If they understood what real security required, they might even seek renewed cooperation with our alienated allies.

A faint facsimile of that recognition began to emerge last week, when Mr. Bush finally asked the United Nations to approve international assistance in Iraq. As our allies are all too well aware, he made that belated decision only under economic, military and political pressures that have become irresistible. The President has staked not only the prestige of the United States but the future safety of the nation on his gamble in Baghdad. On the anniversary of the terrorist atrocity, it seems appropriate to ask whether his policies since Sept. 11 have improved our safety, or left us in greater danger.

Critics of White House policy should acknowledge that Mr. Bush’s government has achieved significant victories against Al Qaeda, our primary enemy. Osama bin Laden’s territorial base of operations was destroyed and many of his lieutenants have been killed or captured. Despite frequent threats and constant intelligence “chatter” from the Islamist network, we have yet to suffer another attack on American soil.

Yet because the President hesitated to commit American troops in sufficient numbers to extirpate both Al Qaeda and the Taliban, they are reportedly regrouping in Afghanistan, a country that we bombed and abandoned. It is difficult to understand why we have sent 130,000 troops to occupy Iraq, rather than to destroy the marauders who committed a bloody act of war against our civilians. It is also hard to understand why that mission remains unfinished, considering the extreme peril of renewed Islamist power on the border of unstable, nuclearized Pakistan.

Instead of completing the pacification of Afghanistan-a project that enjoyed the full support of our allies and most of the world-Mr. Bush embarked on the lonely American adventure in Iraq. Every day the recklessness of that endeavor is confirmed, while the promised benefits continue to recede. Our troops have found none of the terrifying weapons that they invaded Iraq to capture. Our diplomatic initiative in the Middle East has reached an abrupt dead end. Our capacity to use Iraqi oil revenues to rebuild that country has proved to be imaginary.

With the President’s request for $87 billion to finance the war on terrorism-following an initial expenditure of roughly $70 billion in Iraq so far-we are beginning to learn the true costs that Mr. Bush had managed to conceal from us (and perhaps from himself). That financial burden cannot be shifted or evaded without incurring further, unacceptable damage to American credibility. We cannot treat Iraq as we have treated the ruin of Afghanistan.

But at a time when the government is about to record the largest deficit in American history, the President’s $87 billion voucher will mean neglect of domestic priorities-notably in the administration’s poorly funded, badly managed effort to improve “homeland security.”

According to The Washington Post , which published a revealing dissection of the disarray in the Department of Homeland Security on Sept. 7, its funding is so sparse that there aren’t enough secure telephone lines in its headquarters. Administration officials interviewed by The Post admitted that it has so far failed to “organize the government’s 10 or so disparate lists of potential terrorism suspects, secure airline cargo against terrorist plots, and advise local police and firefighters on training and equipment.” Amazingly, the proper staffing of the department’s upper management has been almost impossible because administrators in other agencies regard its mission as low-priority and its disorganized bureaucracy as a backwater.

Although Homeland Security directs the front line of defense against terror, “money is scarce and a constant preoccupation for department managers …. The result is cascading budget crises that have led officials to make emergency cuts in crucial programs such as port security and air marshals.”

The sum that the President requested from Congress for Iraq happens to be roughly double the budget of the Department of Homeland Security, which is currently set at $36 billion. It also happens to equal the combined deficits of the 50 states this year, more or less, as they struggle with the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Here’s another statistic: The Council on Foreign Relations issued a report this summer warning that homeland-security spending will fall short of minimum requirements by more than $98 billion over the next several years.

This administration’s priorities seem skewed-and on this anniversary, there seems little likelihood that this President will correct them.