A More Vulnerable Nation

Intervention Magazine

The Iraq War is diverting resources and shifting our focus away from national security, which makes Americans more vulnerable to terrorism.
By Gerald S. Rellick

The Al Qaeda terrorist attacks of 9/11 couldn’t have been more ill-timed for America: George W. Bush, a hapless soul as president, stumbling about with nothing to show after nine months in office, was still looking for a purpose in life, and was ripe for manipulation by neoconservative ideologues waiting for an excuse to apply the doctrine of American military supremacy. Add to this Dick Cheney looking to settle an old score with Saddam Hussein from Gulf War I, and you had the ingredients of a total political and human disaster on a scale well out of proportion to the terrorist attacks themselves.

But the ingredients were not yet fully mixed and formed. Such a disaster was preventable.

All terrorist groups apply terrorism for shock value and propaganda, and they hope to instill such a powerful sense of anger and revenge that their victim will respond emotionally and recklessly, generating in the process large-scale civilian casualties. For America, already hated in much of the Muslim world because of its support of Israel, this would seed even more hatred and aid in recruiting a large terrorist cadre. This was, in the view of many terrorist experts, one of Osama bin Laden’s major goals.

Nevertheless, the initial responses to the terror attacks were auspicious. The United States attacked with full military force in Afghanistan and quickly dispatched the Taliban government and forced Al Qaeda to retreat into the mountains. And while there were civilian casualties, they were for the most part within the limits of what the rest of the world was willing to tolerate. It remained for the United States to employ its skilled special operations troops in Afghanistan, with full cooperation of the new Afghan government and the Pakistani government, to root out Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The United States stood temporarily victorious. We had the means and the resolve to continue the fight, and perhaps most important, the entire world supported our efforts. America now held a winning hand in its fight against Al Qaeda.

But for reasons variously given--perhaps the war in Afghanistan was too agonizingly slow for an impatient White House not known for thoughtful deliberation--the simple truth is that George Bush lost interest in Al Qaeda and Afghanistan and chose to focus on Iraq. What transpired must surely be seen as one of the most stunningly inept decisions in American military history. It’s almost as if Osama bin Laden had written the entire script--not just for the attacks of 9/11, but also George Bush’s incredibly mindless pursuit of Saddam Hussein.

There were dire warnings about America invading Iraq--although very little of it from the mainline media in this country. One voice of reason--and experience--was Avishai Margalit, distinguished professor of philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who has written widely about the Middle East and the role and nature of terrorism as an instrument of policy. Writing in the New York Review of Books one month before the invasion, Margalit argued, this is the wrong war to fight. “Fighting Saddam Hussein will greatly help this enemy rather than set him back. This will be true even if the war is successful, let alone if it turns out to be unsuccessful.... The governing principle should be: Do not overreact. Acting against Iraq is a glaring example of overreacting.”

The question to be asked is: In spite of the deceit and deception used to sell the war to the American public--not a matter to be forgotten--has the enormous cost of the war in Iraq paid any dividends to our national security? With more than 900 American soldiers dead, approximately 10,000 Iraqis dead, an ongoing military occupation that will certainly last for many years, an enormous financial burden for the country, a badly overstretched and overworked military, and the alienation of America throughout much of the world--are we any safer today? The answer is surely no.

The enormous diversion of funds and manpower into Iraq has been a major disaster for homeland security. The call up of National Guardsmen is the largest since the Korean War, and police and firefighters make up a large share of those in the Guard. There is hardly a city in the country that has not felt the effect of this loss of critical safety personnel. When Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge decides to trip the security light from yellow to orange, it is the local police who do the heavy lifting, particularly in port cities like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. All of these cities find themselves shorthanded. Honolulu, a major port and tourist spot, was forced to send 150 police officers to Iraq with the Guard even though they were already 290 officers short of full staffing; and San Antonio sent 50 cops off to war. The list goes on.

For those who like to think the FBI is in control, think again. There are 800,000 local police personnel in the United States compared to only 11,000 FBI agents. In an article in the Washington Monthly, Bush’s War on Cops, author Benjamin Wallace-Wells stresses the importance of local law enforcement as a critical element in the fight against terrorism. He cites the case of the FBI’s search for the domestic terrorist/abortion-clinic bomber, Eric Rudolph, who had been sought since 1998 and was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for over a year. After Rudolph was seen in a rural area of North Carolina, the FBI posted a $1 million reward and sent 200 agents into the area to search for Rudolph. Their persistent failures led to folk-hero status for Rudolph, inspiring a best-selling T-shirt, “Run, Rudolph, Run.” Rudolph was finally captured in May 2003 by a 21-year-old rookie police officer in Murphy, North Carolina, not far from Rudolph’s original home. The moral of the story is that mundane but efficient police work accomplished what the nation’s top federal agents could not.

But the significance of the story goes even deeper. Because of a lack of funds or general ineptness--probably both--the Homeland Security Department has failed broadly at the task of sharing critical information on terrorists with state and local governments. This is true in spite of the fact that of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks, all lived in the United States before the attacks, and as Wallace-Wells reports, "Some of their names ended up in local police notebooks. By failing to link intelligence work with police work, the federal government is needlessly limiting the ways terrorists might be caught--the in-the-course-of-duty door-to-door work of local police can turn up neighborhood leads with national implications,” as the Eric Rudolph case illustrates.

A report on homeland security by the Progressive Policy Institute observed that “President Bush’s strong words and dramatic settings for speeches have helped make Americans feel safer.” But the truth, they note, is that “the implementation of the policies that will thwart terrorists and make Americans safer” is far from being realized.

George Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s obsession with Iraq has put a gaping hole in America’s homeland security. Bush’s proclamation shortly after 9/11 to make America safer, “to spare no expense,” in his own words, has turned into a bad joke, more Bush-speak: Say one thing and do another and hope the American public doesn’t catch on before Election Day. With recent polls showing a drop in Bush’s popularity, the public may in fact be catching on. Let’s hope so.

Gerald S. Rellick, Ph.D., worked in the military space sector of the aerospace industry. He now teaches in the California Community College system. You can email Gerald at Rellick@interventionmag.com

Posted Sunday, June 6, 2004