The Other War

President Bush and his administration, especially Secretary of State Colin Powell, deserve credit for skillfully and patiently involving the international community in the project to disarm Iraq. So, of course, do Bush's critics, whose efforts compelled the United States to work through the United Nations' inspection process rather than going it alone.

The president has left open the possibility, slim as it may seem, that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government will comply and disarm as required. However, President Bush does not appear to do so with a great deal of conviction. So we may yet find ourselves in Gulf War II in the first half of 2003.

The lingering possibility of war raises two sets of urgent questions. The first set has to do with the conditions for invasion. If Saddam Hussein does not cooperate, will we invade Iraq alone or in concert with other nations? What are reasonable casualty estimates on both sides? Is our goal "regime change," as Bush earlier stated, or is it disarmament, as he has more recently suggested? How long would we maintain a military force in Iraq following victory? How much would an extended occupation cost the American taxpayers? Is there agreement among civilian and military commanders on the occupation strategy to be employed? Would military commanders be permitted to carry out operations without intervention by the civilian command?

Most importantly, are the costs of the war, including casualties, fully understood? And would such a war, once fully understood, retain popular support? The U.S. military fears micromanagement by civilians a great deal. But the U.S. military fears, even more, a violent swing of public opinion against an engagement once it has begun, forces have been committed and casualties are being sustained. That is Vietnam, and it is every commander's worst nightmare.

If the United States is prepared to go it alone, if we expect serious casualties, if we have a plan for a prolonged occupation and if the cost of the entire operation is considerable and continuing, the American people deserve to be told. That is why the Constitution leaves to Congress -- the collective representatives of the people -- the sole authority to declare war. The U.S. armed forces belong to the people, not the president. For the people to support the deployment of their Army, they must understand what is at stake and why. Otherwise, vague polling data about "supporting the president" can disappear overnight with the sight of body bags returning home.

A second set of urgent questions has received even less attention. They can be stated simply: Are we ready for the virtually certain retaliatory terrorist attacks on our homeland if we invade Iraq? The evidence suggests that we are not. Those attacks would not necessarily come from Iraq or Iraqi interests; they could come from elsewhere in the fundamentalist Islamic world, or even from outside it. But a major U.S. invasion of a Muslim country would almost certainly trigger serious attempts to kill Americans.

I recently served with Warren Rudman as co-chair of a Council on Foreign Relations task force of senior, distinguished Americans. In a report we issued titled "America Still Unprepared -- America Still in Danger," we documented at least a half-dozen major areas, illustrative of many more, where virtually no progress has been made -- more than a year after September 11 -- at making our country more secure from outside attack. If we are unprepared today, our vulnerability would be that much greater when the threats spike during a Middle East war.

The areas we highlighted are: lack of access by the 650,000 state and local law enforcement officials to the federal "watch list" for terrorist suspects; lack of preparation of public and private emergency health workers for a biological or chemical attack; lack of training and equipment for 2,700 National Guard units across the nation as "first responders" and defenders against terrorist attacks; massive lack of attention to the vulnerability of our 361 ports, through which 21,000 shipping containers flow every day; and lack of protection for energy production and distribution -- especially oil and gas -- systems. The list goes on. But the point is stark: We are scarcely safer today than when we were first attacked. But now we face the real prospect of a major war and the trigger that war will provide to those waiting for motivation and occasion to kill Americans in our homes and cities.

Not all protective steps require federal government action. Our states and cities can take many measures to prepare us for the age of terrorism. Supposedly, some steps are being taken. But I, for one, still await an accounting from the governments of my own state, Colorado, and city, Denver, as to what measures they are undertaking. What I have heard instead is, "It won't happen here," or, "We're waiting for the federal government to tell us what to do and give us the money to do it." This is bad policy and poor leadership on both grounds. The people across the country -- either directly or through a responsible media -- must insist on an accounting by their elected officials as to what is being done to prepare their regions.

Not all protective measures will or must come from government. Private industry has much to do but has little inclination to do it or little industry leadership. The critical infrastructure -- energy, communications, finance and transportation sectors -- all must do more to make themselves less vulnerable. I haven't heard one executive from any of these industries or individual companies come forward to outline the steps his or her company was taking to make itself more secure. Once again, private-sector officials are waiting for the president or someone else in Washington to tell them what to do. And that leadership is not forthcoming.

We are either at war or we are not. More than a year ago President Bush declared war on terrorism. It is a two-front war -- abroad and at home. But the two-front war is presently being waged on one front alone. If we are at war, we should act like it and not pretend that it will not affect us. Prudent leadership would say to the American people, "We will go to war in a dangerous part of the world only when we know what we are doing and what our plans are, only when we are prepared for the consequences here at home and only when our nation is united -- public and private sectors -- to conduct this war to a successful conclusion."

We are far from being there. Our approach to war making and homeland security in this new era is still ad hoc rather than strategic. We should not assume the worst, but we should expect the unexpected. The struggle against terrorism is a battle that America will win. But before we can believe our families, homes, streets and nation are secure, we have miles to go.