- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

Vice President Dick Cheney said it’s “essential” voters make the “right choice” in the presidential election, because the “danger is that we’ll get hit again” by terrorists if they don’t.

He went too far, we’re told by editorialists and others, and he should, in fact, have taken more care with words he has since seen fit to modify. But we all know, don’t we, that the overriding issue in this campaign is which of the two candidates will better keep America safe from terrorism?

John Kerry has maintained he will, Mr. Bush has maintained he will, and now we have Mr. Cheney stating the Bush side of it more bluntly than is usual in American politics. He did not thereby become “un-American,” as Mr. Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards, has argued. And there is less in Mr. Cheney’s language to fuss about since a spokesman said the vice president agrees an attack could come — whoever is president.

I would myself argue that if we don’t get lost in a discussion of campaign propriety instead of what’s needed to assure our civilization’s survival, Mr. Cheney did voters a favor by expressing the issue so provocatively. It focuses our attention on an essential matter as we debate whether he was correct.

Was he? There is much to consider here, little ground for certainty, and Mr. Kerry may have the edge on some points. It is my view, though, that our land is more secure in the hands of a leader who sees terrorism as the overwhelming threat it is and who has been willing to abandon Cold War preoccupations in the light of a new reality.

Catch him on the right day, and you will also find Mr. Kerry seeing terrorism as “the great challenge of our generation,” as he recently told writers for U.S.News & World Report. Catch him on another day, such as last Jan. 29, and he doesn’t.

“I think there has been an exaggeration,” he said when asked at a debate of Democratic primary candidates if the Bush team had made too much of the peril.

“The war on terrorism is less — it is occasionally military, and it will be, and it will continue to be for a long time,” he added then. “And we will need the best-trained and the most well-equipped and the most capable military, such as we have today. But it’s primarily an intelligence and law-enforcement operation.”

He’s right, of course, that the war must be fought on all these fronts, plus others, But part of what is worrisome here is the -law enforcement emphasis (more recently de-emphasized some). As Mr. Cheney has said, it’s a mistake to view terrorist atrocities as “criminal acts” that should be addressed the same as other crimes. React that way, as we once did, and what you get is September 11. After September 11, President Bush decided to take the war to the enemy, even if that meant moving without the strenuously sought U.N. approval or violating international norms of the Cold War era by pre-empting Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Kerry voted to authorize the war and said, after no weapons of mass destruction had been found, he would vote again to authorize it. But in a more vile charge than any from Mr. Cheney, he contends Mr. Bush lied us into the war — and now says it was “the wrong war.” He goes on incessantly about not having more allies, forgetting we have had about 40, including Britain. The sense is that, as president, he would have left Saddam alone to pursue weapons programs as the world backed off from still another bluff.

As badly as the war now is going, my view is the invasion was necessary to keep a reckless tyrant from someday giving terrorists the means of killing tens of thousands of Americans.

I think, too, the boldness of a George Bush eventually could be needed to take out the nuclear-bomb capacity of an Iran or North Korea. I am not sure Mr. Kerry would not be better on this score; he has evinced true concern about nuclear proliferation, for instance. But, as I am reminded by an article in National Review, there is an unfortunate constancy in this man of many faces. He once thought the communist threat an exaggeration, saying at a 1971 congressional hearing, “The communists are not about to take over our McDonald hamburger stands.” Maybe not, but as the writer of the article notes, the communists went on to slaughter hundreds of thousands of people.

Suppose a threat exaggerated, and your defense may well be inadequate.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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