Eager as ever to Leave No Corpse Unexploited, the right has wasted little time in promoting the idea that last week's horrifying terrorist attacks in Madrid are a vindication of the Bush administration's policies. On March 12, Andrew Sullivan declared his hope that, if al-Qaeda or an affiliate is found to be responsible, "the democratic nations of Europe will begin to realize what Tony Blair and George Bush have been warning about for so long." Arnold Beichman, writing in The National Review Online, proclaimed that the attack "reminds the world that there's a war out there," a phrase echoed in Secretary of State Colin Powell's remark on Fox News Sunday that the bombings "show that there is a war on terror that must be fought." Condoleezza Rice expressly linked this point to electoral politics on Meet The Press, predicting that "we are going to have a debate about whether we are at war."
Too many Democrats seem to want to dodge this debate, either agreeing with Howard Dean's remarks later on Meet the Press that "jobs, jobs, jobs" and "economic security" will be the biggest issues in the campaign, or at least hoping that he's proven right. A strategy of changing the subject might work for the Democrats, but as we learned last week it places a dangerous amount of power in the hands of America's enemies, who might strike at any time and rapidly alter the political discourse. The possibility of new attacks aside, it must also be recognized that the incumbent president has an intrinsic ability to shift attention to national security. The traditional power of the bully-pulpit has been amplified by the White House's ability to manipulate the terror alert system, selectively leak intelligence about chatter, or announce new initiatives without warning.
Meanwhile, when Democrats do talk about national security, the tendency has been to focus on domestic topics like homeland security and energy independence -- areas where the national security agenda conveniently overlaps with that of left-leaning constituencies like public sector unions and environmentalists.
There are good points to be made on these topics, and they should be made. Nevertheless, the central debate here is not one Democrats should be running away from. The contention that the continued reality of the terrorist threat somehow vindicates the Bush approach is absurd -- if anything, it does the reverse -- and liberals need to start saying so.
The administration's first action on the national security front upon taking office was to downgrade the fight against al-Qaeda from the status it held under Bill Clinton, prioritizing instead the danger of "rogue states" by seeking to construct an unworkable missile defense shield. It's impolite to say so, but if Condoleezza Rice had focused less on abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and more on Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger's advice during the transition to "spend more time during your four years on terrorism generally and al-Qaeda specifically than any other issue," there's at least a chance that September 11 might have been averted altogether.
Once the attacks occurred, Bush began to exercise what the media has universally proclaimed to be "strong leadership" on terrorism. In fact, he did nothing of the sort. Instead, after spending the day flying around the country in an apparent state of confusion, he delivered a widely panned address to the nation in which he falsely claimed that, "Immediately following the first attack, I implemented the government's emergency response plans."
There were no such plans, and Bush's immediate reaction to the first attack was to continue reading a children's book to a group of young students.
It wasn't until over a week later that the president demonstrated the closest thing to strong leadership that his administration has ever had to offer: an excellent speech before a joint session of Congress, one of a number of rhetorically brilliant foreign policy addresses he's delivered since 9-11.
The country, however, is in need of a president who can assemble a competent national security team, not a crack staff of speechwriters. The substantive response to the attacks was the war against the Taliban. I, like the vast majority of Americans, supported this effort. Media mythology has it that the military campaign was a stunning success, due to its short duration and low casualty count. This theory conveniently ignores the fact that the president and his team failed to accomplish the actual goals of the war: Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and other top leadership elements got away, and no stable government was introduced in their stead. To this day, the Taliban is conducting military operations in the southern portion of the country.
Our main objectives stymied in Afghanistan, the president did not do the sensible thing and redouble our efforts; instead, he chose to take the country on a two-year detour from al-Qaeda to invade Iraq. At the time, we were repeatedly assured that preparations for war were not detracting from efforts in the war on terror, an assertion that's hard to square with the March 13 announcement that we are only now stepping up efforts to capture bin Laden and his top deputy. It appears, moreover, that in exchange for permission to deploy troops into Pakistan, Bush has agreed to let that government continue to turn a blind eye to the global arms bazaar run by its top nuclear scientist.
The focus on Iraq also led the administration through a mind-boggling series of flip-flops regarding North Korea, Pakistan's main rival as the world champion of weapons proliferation. Bush's efforts to keep the public focused on the Iraqi "threat" have placed the United States in the position of accepting the reality of the DPRK as a nuclear power.
Meanwhile, the one thing we can be quite sure terrorists won't do with any nuclear weapons they manage to buy is load them on top of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Nevertheless, the 2005 budget request for missile defense stands at a staggering $10.2 billion. This might be at least vaguely defensible were it not for the fact that the system in question doesn't work.
Under the circumstances, it's hard to deny that the money would be better spent trying to do something about America's dangerously understaffed Army. Instead of addressing the problem, however, the administration is trying to paper it over with unprecedented mobilizations of National Guard and Reserve units, while using "stop-loss" orders to prevent soldiers from leaving the service. This will work through the fall election, but it threatens to destroy America's all-volunteer force in the long run.
For all the big talk, then, 9-11 appears to have changed nothing for the Bush administration. Their priorities remain the same as before the attacks: missile defense and Iraq, symptoms of a state-centric worldview incapable of really grasping global terrorism. The only difference was that they started saying their policies were directed at counter-terrorism. John Kerry was on the right track in his Feb. 27 national security speech: "I do not fault George Bush for doing too much in the War on Terror; I believe he's done too little." The sentiment is exactly correct, and needs to be repeated. Often. And with specifics.
The Madrid attacks seem to have hurt Spain's conservative governing party badly at the polls, and rightly so. When bad things happen under a government's watch, the officials responsible ought to be held accountable. The American right is quite correct to say that the terrorist threat remains serious; this is, however, less a reflection of our enemies' strength than of the simple fact that the Bush administration hasn't bothered with doing much of anything about it, preferring to offer tough talk as a rhetorical smokescreen for an unrelated agenda. Don't they know there's a war on?
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column, which appears every Tuesday, examines and debunks the arguments of the right.