The Democrats have found a new issue besides the racism of Trent Lott. As The New York Times explained last week, the Presidential hopefuls-Senator John Kerry, Senator John Edwards, Senator Joseph Lieberman and Governor Howard Dean-warn that the Bush administration hasn’t done enough to secure us against terrorism. Here is a perfect political position to be in: supporting your enemy, the incumbent, in the task before him-fighting the worldwide friends of Al Qaeda-but preparing to take advantage of any setbacks he may encounter along the way. What would be a lose/lose situation for the country-a 9/11-style attack on the Rose Bowl or the Super Bowl, smallpox in Chicago, a dirty bomb on a Liberian-registered ship in the port of Los Angeles-becomes a win/win for the aspiring hack.
In part, the Democrats are right: President Bush has made some bad choices in the realm of personnel, and since he seems unlikely to acknowledge them, we can only hope they do not harm us. In the case of George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, we must hope that he doesn’t harm us more than he already has. The notion that the man who was on the bridge the morning of 9/11 survived the afternoon of 9/11 is dismaying.
Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was made to walk the plank, but all he did was shoot off his mouth and impoverish millions. George Tenet’s in-box/out-box approach to Al Qaeda cost thousands of lives. Will Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta be the next George Tenet? Mr. Mineta was an affirmative-action hire, a Japanese-American Democrat designed to give the Bush administration the multi-ethnic and bipartisan spice of a Presidential campaign podium. Only recently has airport security, guided by Mr. Mineta, stopped frisking 80-year-old white grandmothers because they too might be wearing shoe bombs. Meanwhile, do we have plans to protect train stations or ports?
Each misbegotten underling reflects a vice, or the vice of a virtue, of Mr. Bush himself. His desire to be the great multicolored hope of the G.O.P. caused Mr. Bush to appoint Norman Mineta in the first place; it causes him now to endorse his policies. One of Mr. Bush’s great strengths is his desire to seek the practical knowledge of relevant experts. In Mr. Tenet’s case, this has led him to defer to an expert whose knowledge outruns his skill.
There is a more serious point about homeland security, which is psychological. When we have criticized all that is criticizable, and done all that should be done, there is still a wide margin for the failure of virtue, the brilliance of malice or pure luck. There never was a victory won without loss, and it would be bold to say that 9/11 will be the only loss we feel. A nation that has tried to eliminate risk from surgery, diets and automobiles must learn to accept the risks of war. If loss comes again, we should mourn the victims, punish the perpetrators and shrug our shoulders. We should cultivate a mind-set like that of Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations I am reading for the first time, in a new translation by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks: “Either unavoidable Necessity and an unchangeable order, or a Providence that hears our prayers, or a wild and uncontrollable storm. If unavoidable Necessity, why fight it? If a Providence ready to show mercy, why not try to be worthy of divine aid? But if an uncontrollable storm, take heart in such heavy seas knowing that you have reason at the helm.” Reason, or a good attitude.
Another thought for the new year of the Terror War concerns communication. If we go to war on Iraq, will President Bush make the case first? He is not a Roman speechmaker, telling the Senate day after day that Carthage must be destroyed. On the other hand, he is both patient and thorough. He believes in assembling a case, and he can take all the time he needs to make sure that every piece is in place. His decision to take his case to the United Nations seems to be neither a deft rhetorical maneuver laced with contempt (what do you propose to do about it?), nor an unthinking blunder into the lobster trap of international diplomacy. Rather, Mr. Bush took the U.N. route, in part, as a pedagogical tool-to instruct the world, and the American public, in Iraq’s evasiveness and bad faith. A document dump that was as copious as it was incomplete; scientists that we cannot speak to; bluster and rant-these are not the actions of someone with nothing to hide. Another reason Mr. Bush went the U.N. route, of course, was probably to make sure that we had enough Predators and “daisy cutters” in our arsenal.
Audiences continue to underestimate Mr. Bush’s intelligence and his rhetoric, which is probably fine by him. Every time he thinks clearly and speaks well, he is that much more compelling, by virtue of surprise. If the time comes, he is likely to surprise us again.
A final New Year’s thought was suggested by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declaring, in tabloid all-caps, that we could fight two regional wars simultaneously, against Iraq and North Korea, if necessary. When President Bush put North Korea in the “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq, it seemed like a Norman Mineta–esque ploy-frisking an Asian grandmother to avoid accusations of racial profiling against the Muslim world. Didn’t former President Jimmy Carter win a Nobel Peace Prize, and hadn’t one of his most successful peace offensives been his defusing of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program? Surprise! North Korea has been very bad, and they got a lump of reactor fuel in their stocking, which they threaten to turn into bombs as fast as they can. The distressed state of the North Korean economy will not hold them back, for North Korea represents the Stalinist stage of Communism, in which the people starve so that the leader may be comfortable and well-armed.
We have fought on two fronts before. World War II pitted us against the Axis, which was further from the atom bomb than the Axis of Evil, but which, by way of compensation, had Hitler. We could fight such a war again. Which raises the deepest question about Mr. Bush’s strategy: Did he choose to mobilize us at the proper level? This is a question beyond the questioning of Governor Howard Dean.