Tuesday, August 19, 2003

In three weeks time, two years will have elapsed since the September 11 terrorist attacks hit and shocked America. The Bush administration and many members of Congress will understandably use this occasion to describe how far the country has come, both in the healing process and in taking the fight to the enemy.Warsin Afghanistanand Iraq were fought and won. Al Qaeda is on the run. A new Departmentof Homeland Security has been created to make the country safer and securer. And, while winning the peace in both Afghanistanand Iraq is proving to be a more formidable taskthananticipated, the assessmentwillbe upbeat.

Yet, despite the inclinationof Americans to believe their government and an inherent optimism as old as the nation, there is concern. Is the nation really safer or more secure? Why haven’t Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction been located? Why do conditions in both Afghanistan and Iraq appear to be worsening and American casualties mounting if all is going well? And, if security is improving, why are warnings about possible attacks on airliners issued at the same time Americans are told to go about their daily lives as if all were normal?

Then there is the political debate over all of these matters in which both parties defend themselves and attack the other, not so much in line with what is known and what is not, but in keeping with whether they are Democrats or Republicans and support or oppose the president. Yet, there are some intersections of fact and uncertainty that cannot be ignored or downplayed without real risk to the nation. Consider two.

The first is that no one knows how difficult the task of rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan will prove to be. Ambassador Paul Bremer, the American in charge of the Iraqi coalition provisional authority, does not know. President Bush does not know, nor do the potential Democratic presidential contenders. People can speculate. People can fault the administration in its planning for the peace or criticize the critics for failing to support the president. Still, no one can say with certainty what will and what will not happen in Iraq, at least not yet.

The second point concerns the terrorists’ aims in general and al Qaeda’s in particular. There is no doubt that there are people, probably in large numbers, who have used and are prepared to use terror at the expense of their own lives to gain a broader aim. However, it is still arguable whether or not Osama bin Laden is a Pancho Villa, making a one-time raid into New Mexico as it were in 1914, or a new Lenin and the prospect of a decades’ long struggle.

Based on these intersections of fact and uncertainty, the administration might restate its case to the American public on how it will win both the peace in the region and the war on terror. In Iraq, there is nothing wrong in admitting what we know and what we do not. The current attacks against U.S. forces and friendly Iraqis are part of an insurgency. Admit it. And note that we are trying to end that insurgency as soon as possible. However, the struggle could last for some time — even years. We should be absolutely candid in that regard.

Regarding Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, it is important to return to first principles and understand what is motivating these Islamic fundamentalists. The administration believes it is hatred of America and its values of freedom and individual dignity. No doubt, there is much resentment and even hatred of many aspects of American culture abroad, from rap music to lascivious movies to hip clothes to McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken shops. But to win the war on terror and the peace as well, a sounder analysis is needed.

Osama bin Laden and his followers are less interested in hating America than in creating some loose form of fundamentalist entity backed with Saudi oil money and Pakistani nuclear weapons to guarantee this theocratic-political conglomerate. They are after regime change, using terror as one means to achieve that end. Hence, both physical and intellectual countermeasures are essential to destroy and delegitimize the foundations for Osama bin Laden’s ideology, regardless of whether it has the staying power of Lenin or not.

Apprehending or killing the terrorists is only one part of the solution. To win in the broadest sense, the truth and the uncertainties must be understood by the American people. There have been enough simplistic arguments about terrorists’ hatred of America and gratuitous advice to buy duct tape and cipro to protect homes and families.

If a more candid accounting of truth and uncertainty does not occur, there is not enough duct tape in the universe to keep us safe and secure.

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