Monday, September 8, 2003

On the eve of the second anniversary of the deadly September 11 attacks, George W. Bush offered the country a visionary, courageous and correct assessment of the progress of the War on Terror — and his strategy for waging and winning it.

One particularly noteworthy passage in the president’s address televised to the nation Sunday was his characterization of the high stakes involved in this global conflict:

“For America, there will be no going back to the era before September 11, 2001 — to false comfort in a dangerous world. We have learned that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength; they are invited by the perception of weakness. And the surest way to avoid attacks on our own people is to engage the enemy where he lives and plans.

We are fighting that enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today so we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities.”

Unfortunately, this presidential affirmation of U.S. policy geared toward fighting the terrorists and their state sponsors on others’ soil rather than our own is at risk of being undermined by recent actions the president has allowed to be taken in his name.

Pre-eminent among these was the decision announced last week that Secretary of State Colin Powell had been authorized by Mr. Bush to seek a U.N. Security Council mandate for postwar Iraq. At best, the effect was to signal the president’s recognition that his U.S.-led liberation had failed and could only be legitimated, and salvaged, if those who had opposed it (in particular, the French, Germans, Russians, Syrians, Chinese and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan) were placated with American concessions leading to new military and/or political arrangements.

At worst, the signal was the United States was preparing, once again, to bail out on a difficult and costly international mission.

Matters were made worse by the coincidence of this apparent volte face with several others. For example, Mr. Powell pointed last week to the fact that talks about North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs had taken place in the context of the six-party “framework” as evidence the United States was successfully containing the danger that Pyongyang soon will be able to wield and export the ultimate weapons of mass destruction.

This claim rang all the more hollow for it being accompanied with reports the administration had decided to revert to the Clinton policy of giving Kim Jong-il financial and other rewards before the North demonstrably abandoned its nuclear ambitions.

There also was the decision to back away from a resolution that would have put the other imminent nuclear threat — that posed by Islamofascist Iran — before the U.N. Security Council for urgent action.

Similarly, with the exception of periodic warnings from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about Syrian contributions to instability in Iraq, the Bush administration seems to have decided to give Damascus a pass.

Then there is Saudi Arabia. As Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, will demonstrate in yet another congressional hearing on Wednesday, the kingdom continues to contribute vast sums and cannon fodder to the terrorist organizations we are fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, including in the United States. Yet, the administration’s party line remains that Riyadh is “cooperating” fully with Washington and a reliable partner in the War on Terror.

In much the same see-no-evil vein, Mr. Powell actually declared last week that “U.S. relations with China are the best they have been since President Nixon first visit” in 1972. This despite evidence that the Communist Chinese remain very much the “strategic competitors” the Bush administration confronted on taking office, thanks to, among other things, their continuing nuclear build-up, proliferation, threats to Taiwan, life-support for North Korea, trade-devastating currency manipulations and strategic mischief-making in our own hemisphere and elsewhere.

How can one square the seeming disconnect between the firm and robust things Mr. Bush says and what his administration is actually doing on so many fronts — a disconnect unlikely to go unnoticed by our enemies?

A possible — and deeply worrying — explanation is that the president is heeding the counsel reportedly advanced of late by his political handlers. Published accounts say that the most influential of these, White House adviser Karl Rove, has warned that there must be “no more wars” for the remainder of Mr. Bush’s term. Grover Norquist, who Mr. Rove allows to portray himself as a close ally, has opined publicly that “[Wars] are expensive and a drain politically. They are not political winners.”

According to Mr. Norquist, it follows that, if Mr. Bush persists in engaging in them, he could doom himself to being a one-term president.

Further evidence that the administration is now following what might be called the “No More War in ‘04” strategy was obtained last week when an unnamed senior official told a reporter the North Koreans could “breathe easy because we aren’t going to do anything to them for 14 months.”

As President Bush noted Sunday, however, the alternative to our being on the offense against our terrorist enemies and those who shelter, arm or otherwise support them is to be on defense. Just because we find wars to be inconvenient or a “drain politically” does not mean we can avoid fighting them. It simply means we will likely wind up having to wage them, in the president’s words, “again on our own streets, in our own cities.”

If Mr. Bush wishes to be taken seriously — by either our foes or the American electorate — he would be well-advised to make clear there is no daylight between his rhetoric and his policies concerning the War on Terror. After all, at stake is not only his presidency, but the national security.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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