TCS Daily

No White Before Memorial Day

By Brian E. Finch - May 23, 2002 12:00 AM

The fashion-conscious reader knows that white cannot be worn until after Memorial Day. For Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, however, any time of the year is apparently a good one to run up the white flag on the war on terror.

Kristof recently wrote that the war on terror is "floundering" and that we cannot "get ahead of the curve" in confronting the next catastrophe. He says that the U.S. is making progress, but "just not fast enough."

His point is as interesting as it is shortsighted. It is true that there are many unresolved goals: Osama bin Laden remains at large (we think), al Qaeda still operates in many countries and new threats are announced each day. But to argue that the Bush Administration is losing the war at this point is not only premature, it also demonstrates that Kristof and others do not understand the true nature of this war and how the U.S. must approach it.

A Permanent Struggle

The war on terror is a permanent one - it does not have one or two foes whose defeat will result in victory. In fact, the war on terror is more akin to the "war on crime" - it is one that will have its ebbs and flows, but it is one that in one form or another we will always be fighting and must always be taken with extreme seriousness.

The key idea to understand is that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda do not represent the only threats to U.S. security. There are terrorists groups across the globe that would like nothing more than to see the U.S. be harmed in some fashion based on an alleged grievance. Such groups could seize upon any number of imaginary wounds inflicted by the U.S. in order to justify their murderous causes. Similarly, new groups will constantly be popping up, and they will be all too willing to strike out against the U.S. if the opportunity presents itself.

Kristof recognizes that there are multiple threats, but he draws the wrong lesson from their existence. His frustration with the fact that we have not yet corralled "loose nukes," don't have a set system in place for checking baggage or reduced the risk from Iraq or North Korea somehow leads him to the conclusion we are losing the war. Kristof even goes so far as to say that we have our troops in all the wrong places, with for instance thousands of troops in Japan whose only apparent purpose is to protect against alien invasion. Such snide comments make it appear as though all the U.S. needs to do is throw a few switches to get the war on terror into high gear. It is of course not that simple. The U.S. has been facing those threats for years, and only after 9/11 do we take them with great seriousness. The fact that we are now directly confronting problems head on does not make their resolution any easier.

Take for instance Kristof's criticism that our fight against Saddam Hussein is faltering because of our failure to get engaged in the Arab-Israeli conflict sooner. The U.S. has been precluded from taking taken solid action against Hussein because our Middle Eastern "allies" have always objected to giving him stiff treatment regardless of what actions Israel was taking (if Kristof's criticisms were true, then the U.S. would have built a solid coalition against Iraq when Israel was offering the Palestinians everything they wanted). The criticisms made by Kristof about the North Korea situation are similarly misguided (note to Kristof - the presence of 47,000 troops in Japan may have something do with aiding in any potential fight with North Korea much less that obscure country known as China).

Where We Really Stand

It's time then to take a step back and evaluate where we really stand in the war on terror. Osama bin Laden may be on the loose, but his forces are on the run, and that means we are disrupting al-Qaeda's ability to operate. At the same time, the U.S. is actively stemming terrorist operations and their efforts to arm themselves. Each day the news wire is filled with tidbits about arrests of suspects and shoot-outs with al-Qaeda fighters. Such reports at first glance might seem trivial, but in reality they represent an active and successful campaign against terrorists. The U.S. government should not have to spell out the fact that such activities represent steady progress, but unfortunately for some the only proof of progress appears to be dead bodies or the catching of terrorists with their fingers literally on the bomb trigger. It does not work that way. The war on terror is in many ways a silent fight with quiet victories, and let's hope Americans will remember that we do not have to crush our foes publicly in order to be on the path to victory.

At the same time, the recent spate of terror warnings is not a signal that we are on the verge of defeat. Rather, it represents the fact that our government is devoting significant resources to fight terrorism and is finally connecting those "dots" everyone is abuzz about. The fact that we are paying attention is a good sign. At the same time, such warnings represent the fruition of the press criticisms about how we should have been warned about 9/11. Now almost every threat, no matter how credible or incredible, is passed along so that the government can say it is informing the public. The only question about those warnings is how long it will take the press to criticize the government for sending out too many of them.

Which gets back to the original point - this is a permanent war. Terrorists have been around in various forms throughout most of human history, and they will continue to exist despite our best efforts. We must forever be vigilant and do our best to try and stop them before they act. This means taking on multiple foes and acting in an urgent, but thoughtful manner. And when we stop one threat, we turn to the next one. Thus, we must think of the war on terror like it is the "war" on crime. Stopping one perpetrator simply means you go on the lookout for the next potential felon. It is not as if when the police catch their ten most wanted, they stop working -- they instead add new faces. If that were the way it worked, the FBI would have been disbanded when Al Capone was arrested.

Not Safe But Safer

To suggest, as Kristof does, that the failure of President Bush to "get ahead of the curve" in a few months means we are floundering is ludicrous. The war on terror is something we did not focus on for years, and now we are paying that price. It is not President Bush's fault, but it is his problem to solve. And in doing so, the last thing he needs to deal with is sniping criticism from the chattering class on how he has not solved all our problems right away. Kristof's criticisms are unfair because he attempts to define victory as reaching the unattainable goal of making the U.S. "safe." The U.S. will never be absolutely safe, but if we recognize that the war on terror is a permanent struggle and provide the continued support it therefore needs, we will have taken a large step in making the U.S. safer.

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