- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

September 11 “changed everything,” or so we are told. But what exactly did it change? What is really different since that horrible day?

Almost immediately, President Bush declared a global war on terrorism. Then, the United States mounted two stunning military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Taliban were routed, and many of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, were killed, captured or dispersed. And, of course, Saddam Hussein was deposed and his country given the chance to become whole and free.

The Department of Homeland Security was created to protect the nation. An additional $150 billion or so were was appropriated in the wars against terror and Saddam and to win the peace in Iraq. Security throughout America was tightened. In big cities, visitors are routinely photographed as they enter office buildings. And, for the rest of our lives, we will go shoeless through airport security checkpoints.

But the fact is that despite the president’s rhetoric, we are not a nation at war. There are no “Rosy the Riveters” on production lines replacing men sent off to war. There is no draft, no ration cards or even victory gardens in our backyards. We remain a nation very much at peace. So, what has changed?

First and foremost, the nation faces a very dangerous threat. This is unlike the Cold War, when the ultimate nightmare was thermonuclear war and the likely destruction of society as we knew it, both East and West shared the common overriding interest of preventing that catastrophe. Even with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready, not a single one was used in anger. Indeed, aside from crises over missiles in Cuba in 1962 and the October war in the Middle East in 1973, nuclear weapons proved to be the absolute deterrent to conflict between East and West.

Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups have no such constraints. The probability of future attack we are witnessing around the world from Iraq to Istanbul is unity. And, as Osama learned after September 11 and later repeated publicly, the intention is to disrupt not just destroy. “It is the economy stupid,” after all.

Hence, the political use of terror is to disrupt, divide and isolate the United States and its allies. The president deeply believes that terror cannot be dissociated from terror weapons — chemical, nuclear or biological. One day, as the anthrax letter attacks so vividly demonstrated, Mr. Bush fears these agents will be used again. These attacks, of course, could be very deadly and destructive. However, the intent is to disrupt — not only to kill.

The two snipers that terrorized the Washington corridor last year are grim reminders of how vulnerable to disruption any nation is. However, this vulnerability is not the sole source of worry. There is a more disturbing aspect to the larger intentions of radical Islam and al Qaeda.

Radical Islam is bent on seizing Saudi oil money and Pakistani nuclear weapons. Whether this means fomenting a revolution to put in place fundamentalist and radical regimes or merely benefiting from that result in terms of accessing money and nukes is not certain. But that makes little difference. Al Qaeda is clearly capable of remaining a borderless power, a virtual house of many horrors.

The White House views Iraq as the central battleground in this war on terror. In one sense, that view is valid in that “victory” will go a long way to prevent Saudi Arabia and Pakistan from becoming veritable dominoes. However, the battle is far broader. Exclusive or extensive focus on Iraq will dilute necessary preventative action elsewhere.

Meanwhile, getting the U.S. government to act in a coordinated and effective manner is perhaps the single most serious challenge the nation faces. We all understand that the Founding Fathers purposely set up divided government and a balance of power to limit centralized political authority. That was the permanent insurance for individual freedom. What we now see are more political food fights over judges, energy and Medicare bills, intelligence oversight of the Executive and growing tendency to politicize and demonize the opposition.

While these spectacles, including the 40-hour filibuster in the Senate two weeks ago, make for good entertainment, they are poor excuses for real governance. So what can be done?

Better understanding of the danger and the need for cooperative and effective bipartisan action are pieces of business that, left unfinished, imperil the nation. The White House and Congress, as well as Republicans and Democrats, must recognize that we are at a point of great danger. The threat of disruption, overlaid with weapons of mass destruction, and the aspirations of radical Islam are deadly serious and real.

Unless we grasp these facts and act on them, we will not be safer and little will have really changed since September 11.

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