A Simple Plan

On April 27, beneath the fluorescent lights of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' basement conference room, Representative Jim Turner unveiled "Winning The War on Terror," a large report prepared by the Democratic staff of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. Turner hoped that the report might spark national debate over what could easily be the most serious problem the nation faces. Instead, it vanished into the void, attracting almost no attention outside of his home state of Texas.

Turner, after all, simply isn't a power player in Washington. He's the sort of backbench, minority-party congressman who has time to linger after an event and chat with reporters from small-circulation magazines. He won't even be in Congress much longer, having essentially been forced from office by a redistricting plan engineered by Tom DeLay to divide Turner's constituents among six jurisdictions.

But Turner's lame-duck obscurity isn't a reason to ignore his work. Indeed, it's the reason he deserves to be taken seriously. The group of outside experts the staff consulted in preparing the report are the Democrats' key thinkers on national-security issues, among them Rand Beers, Ashton Carter, Ivo H. Daalder, Leon Fuerth, Gary Hart, Ron Klain, Anthony Lake, John Podesta, Michael O'Hanlon, and Susan Rice -- people who've served at high levels of government and would be the ones to shape national-security strategy if Democrats obtain power again. Indeed, they're roughly the same group of people who've been informing the statements of more prominent party figures on the subject. The difference is that without one eye on an election, Turner -- unlike John Kerry, Tom Daschle, Nancy Pelosi, or even an ordinary representative running for re-election -- has the freedom to say what he really thinks.

The 84-page document Turner unveiled on April 27 contains more than 100 policy recommendations on a host of subjects, reaching beyond homeland security toward intelligence and military reforms aimed at improving America's ability to go on the offensive against terrorism. Most interesting, however, is part three, concerning what Turned describes as "the greatest challenge and most neglected problem we face": preventing the rise of future generations of terrorists. The centerpiece of this strategy is the welcome twofold proposition that the country, in conjunction with allies, commit substantial resources toward improving living conditions in the Islamic world.

In the first instance, this means improving education by directing $10 billion over 10 years "directly for operation of primary and secondary secular schools in Arab states that commit to doubling their investment in public education over the course of ten years." The goal here is to wean students away from the radical indoctrination of the madrasas, traditional schools where Islam is taught. But unless we want to be running Arab school systems forever, sustainable secular education is going to require local economic development, so Turner's second proposal is a Marshall Plan-like effort to provide $100 billion in aid over 10 years (to be matched by allies) that would be conditioned on recipient countries adopting a broad range of internal economic reforms.

Relative to the scale of the challenge, these proposals are actually rather modest. The invasion of Iraq has cost more than $100 billion so far, with $25 billion more requested in early May and no end in sight. (The $1 billion a year Turner wants for schools, by contrast, is less than the Pentagon's budget for a single day, though stopping terrorist ideology from spreading is clearly preferable to trying to combat its adherents later with cruise missiles.) The real Marshall Plan, undertaken by America alone, cost $200 billion per year relative to the present size of the economy, not $200 billion over 10 years with half the money coming from Europe and Japan.

If America paid for the construction of secular schools, would anyone attend? Evidence suggests that the answer is "yes." The rise of the madrasas has not been instigated by a declining interest in secular education. Rather, a major youth-population boom has increased the number of school-age children far above what cash-strapped, government-operated school systems can accommodate. As Graham Fuller wrote in a 2003 Brookings Institution paper on the subject, "[T]he underlying phenomenon in a number of Muslim states, is that budgetary weakness has led to increasing state dependency on private education that largely falls into the hands of Islamist religious organizations, who have both the funding and the interest to assume the challenge." With average secondary-school enrollment in the Arab world at just 58 percent for boys and 48 percent for girls, demand for education clearly outstrips supply. A program similar to Turner's (though more modest) providing $100 million in aid over five years was eagerly embraced by the Pakistani government in 2002, suggesting that at least some regimes in the region would seize the opportunity were it provided.

It's noteworthy that no one seriously disputes the necessity of taking action on the educational front. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked in an October 16, 2003, memo to top aides, "How do we stop those who are financing the radical madrassa schools?" He also floated the notion of creating some sort of private foundation to promote alternatives. The administration, however, did not follow up on the idea, the Pakistan initiative, or the general problem.

Compared with the cost of an ongoing military and intelligence struggle to stop terrorism, the United States can easily afford massive short-term expenditures for education and other aid. That tack is likely to work better, too, in counteracting the conditions that lead to Islamist terrorism: The current route we're on can lead only to endless struggle, threatens to erode civil liberties, and, even with the best intelligence and homeland-security operations, will inevitably allow some attacks to get through.

Nevertheless, we're unlikely to see Turner's ideas implemented anytime soon. As Turner says, commitments of this scale require "presidential leadership," and we've seen nothing like that. President Bush himself was moving toward proposing a Marshall-style plan early this year, only to wind up dropping the idea after getting into a credit dispute with European allies and burning credibility with Arab publics through inaction on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His White House has instead been dominated by the idée fixe of tax cuts, and it simply can't find the money for such preventive international measures. At the same time, the administration has preferred initiatives like the Iraq War that, costly as they may be, fit into a traditional state-oriented view that national security can be financed through off-budget supplemental appropriations allowing their architects to maintain a pretense of fiscal responsibility.

For their part, Democrats have been verbally supportive of Turner's plan (Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi issued a statement endorsing it), but the caucus' official Web sites make it plain that the party's priorities remain health care, education, and pensions, with a dollop of homeland security added to the mix. Mention of military and intelligence reform are hard to find among its postings, and as the three-year anniversary of September 11 approaches, there's no indication of a search for long-term solutions.

Kerry promises to do somewhat better. In a February 27 speech in Los Angeles, he repeatedly noted the need for a "comprehensive strategy for victory in the war on terror," including the need to "compete with radical madrasas" and promote economic opportunity, though he offered no specific commitments. It's a step in the right direction, but his proposals on this front are relatively vague and airy when compared with those he's put forward in other areas, including deficit reduction, domestic spending, and rolling back tax cuts.

The reality is that there's no constituency for spending directed against terrorism. Tax cuts or expanded health coverage bring direct and obvious benefits to at least some segments of the electorate, and it's extremely hard to claim credit for the attacks your spending may or may not have prevented. Foreign aid, especially, is a tough sell: Why build schools in Beirut when the people of Brooklyn still have unmet needs? Given sufficient leadership, such things are possible (the Marshall Plan did, after all, pass at a time when the United States was not without problems of its own), but there's little sign that any major figure on the scene cares to exercise it.

Turner says "we need to regain that sense of urgency that we had after 9-11 "if we want to get the war on terrorism back on track. We had that sense of urgency once, and the president fumbled the ball. The opposition, meanwhile, didn't gain its nerve until the urgency had dissipated." Under the circumstances, perhaps the best we can hope for are leaders who won't do the same when that sense is renewed by another domestic attack.

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