Saturday, September 11, 2004

Three Years On by MARK HELPRIN Published in WSJ 9/10/2004

Three years after September 11, where do we stand?

Out of fear and confusion we have hesitated to name the enemy. We proceed as if we are fighting disparate criminals united by coincidence, rather than the vanguard of militant Islam, united by ideology, sentiment, doctrine, and practice, its partisans drawn from Morocco to the Philippines, Chechnya to the Sudan, a vast swath of the earth that, in regard to the elemental beliefs that fuel jihad, is as homogeneous as Denmark.

Too timid to admit to a clash of civilizations even as it occurs, we failed to declare the war, thus forfeiting clarity of intent and the unambiguous consent of the American people. This was a sure way, as in the Vietnam era, to divide the country and prolong the battle.

We failed not only to prepare for war but to provision for it after it had begun, disallowing a military buildup, much less the wartime transformation of the economy. In the First World War our elected representatives decisively resolved that "to bring the conflict to a successful termination all the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States." In the Revolutionary War we as a people pledged our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

What is different now of course is that we are combating neither the British Empire nor Imperial Germany, but an opponent who is fundamentally weak militarily, economically, and, in the long run, ideologically. Still, he has by his near mastery of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare necessitated that we mobilize as if we were in fact fighting a great empire. And yet we have not done so, expending not even the average of 5.7% of GDP we devoted to defense in the peacetime years of the period 1940-2000, but, currently, only 3.6%--as if we were not at war, as if the military technological "revolution" could overcome insurgencies or occupy populous countries, as if China's armed forces were not ascending, as if our territory were invulnerable, and as if terrorism, as some used to think and some still do, can simply be managed.

We have followed a confusion of war aims that seem to report after the fact what we have done rather than to direct what we do. We could, by threatening the existence of Middle Eastern regimes, which live to hold power, enforce our insistence that the Arab world eradicate the terrorists within its midst. Instead, we have embarked upon the messianic transformation of an entire region, indeed an entire civilization, in response to our inability to pacify even a single one of its countries. As long as our war aims stray from the disciplined, justifiable, and attainable objective of self-defense, we will be courting failure.

Our strategy has been deeply inadequate especially in light of the fact that we have refused to build up our forces even as our aims have expanded to the point of absurdity. We might have based in northern Saudi Arabia within easy range of the key regimes that succor terrorism, free to coerce their cooperation by putting their survival in question. Our remounted infantry would have been refreshed, reinforced, properly supported, unaffected by insurgency, and ready to strike. The paradigm would have shifted from conquer, occupy, fail, and withdraw--to strike, return, and re-energize. At the same time, we would not have solicited challenges, as we do now, from anyone who sees that although we may be occupying Iraq, Iraq is also occupying us.

We have abstained from mounting an effective civil defense. Only a fraction of a fraction of our wealth would be required to control the borders of and entry to our sovereign territory, and not that much more to discover, produce, and stockpile effective immunizations, antidotes, and treatments in regard to biological and chemical warfare. Thirty years ago the entire country had been immunized against smallpox. Now, no one is, and the attempt to cover a minuscule part of the population failed miserably and was abandoned. Not only does this state of affairs leave us vulnerable to a smallpox epidemic, it stimulates the terrorists to bring one about. So with civil aviation, which, despite the wreckage and tragedy of September 11, is protected in an inefficient, irresponsible, and desultory fashion.

We have watched the division of the country into two ineffective camps, something that is especially apparent in an electoral season. On the one hand is John Kerry, a humorless Boston scold, in appearance the love child of Abraham Lincoln and Bette Midler, who recites slogans that he understands but does not believe. And on the other is the president, proud of his aversion to making an argument for his own case, in appearance a denizen of the Pleistocene, who recites slogans that he believes but does not understand.

At this point the American people, who most of the time are wiser than the experts or politicians who briefly take the helm, may already have decided to reinstall the president despite his shortcomings. If this is so, it is because Sen. Kerry's main motive power has come from those who are foolish enough to exult in the crude and baseless propaganda of a freakish Leni Riefenstahl wannabe (too heavy), and because, in what may have been his campaign's defining moment, Sen. Kerry stated that he learned a long time ago that when under attack you turn your boat toward the enemy. And yet it is clear from his record, his character, and his present policy that this is precisely what he would not do. Nor, though it is exactly what the country should do, is it at all what his most enthusiastic partisans or the base of the Democratic Party would want him to do.

He and they have adopted simultaneously two opposing propositions and embraced two opposing tendencies, which they then present to the electorate as if there is no contradiction. They do not feel acutely, as others do, the dissonance of their positions, because they truly believe in only the less martial of the two.

Although they cannot state why the American, British, Spanish, and Australian invasion of Iraq was any more or less unilateral or multilateral than France, Germany, and Belgium working to derail that invasion, or deny that they admire Britain for standing alone, unilaterally, in 1940, or that the multilateral Axis invasion of Greece was wrong, or that they themselves urge unilateral American action to stop genocide in Africa, they use these words fervently and without logic. They may believe that this is their subtlety, but it is nothing more than confusion and a stylish capitulation to the French, who unfortunately are perfectly willing to capitulate to Islamic terrorism as long as France has purchased its own safety, as of old.

Given the lack of movement in the war and poverty of choice in leadership, Americans looked to a commission. Like the senescent Ottomans we waited and waited as the seasons passed, and were presented neither with swelling armies, well defended borders, nor a string of victories. Although the bravest commissioners of said commission fought to tell us that we are indeed in a clash of civilizations, even they, appointed by their respective parties, did not state the simple unvarnished truth that for 20 years administrations both Republican and Democratic have ignored or misread the evidence concerning terrorism and must be judged negligent and culpable.

The president could have said this, and in doing so clarified the course ahead and won the trust of the people. The commission could have said it simply and directly, but did not. Instead, it offered the labored and nearly impertinent conclusion that the way to prevail in this war is to rearrange the organizational table of the intelligence agencies. Many of its reforms are questionable on their face, most would have merely a neutral effect on the substance of intelligence, and the emphasis is mistaken. Like those who want to fight the war by funding fire departments--knife attacks are not defeated by bandages, and the Battle of Britain was not won by the London Fire Brigades--the commission looked upon one aspect as if it were the essential element, which it is not.

The more good intelligence the better, but because the enemy moves in small groupings he will on occasion, as intelligence is not perfect, elude it. That is why difficult, expensive, inefficient, and general defensive screens are necessary, and why we cannot rely only on pinpoint intelligence even if it is both fashionable and economical. In stressing intelligence, the commission slights elements of equal or greater importance that led to September 11 in the first place. Had the airport screeners been competent, had cockpit doors been reinforced, had the borders been properly controlled, the thousands who were lost that day, and who are loved, would still be alive.

Neither the commission, the president, nor the Democratic nominee has a clear vision of how to fight and defend in this war. Partly this is because so many Americans do not yet feel, as some day they may, the gravity of what we are facing.

Three years on, that is where we stand: our strategy shiftless, reactive, irrelevantly grandiose; our war aims undefined; our preparations insufficient; our civil defense neglected; our polity divided into support for either a hapless and incompetent administration that in a parliamentary system would have been turned out long ago, or an opposition so used to appeasement of America's rivals, critics, and enemies that they cannot even do a credible job of pretending to be resolute.

Mr. Helprin is a novelist, a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute.

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