August 15, 2006
Are we safer? Wrong question
I have a bad feeling about the coming political season. I foresee an argument about a question to which there is no satisfactory answer: Has the George W. Bush presidency made America safer?
You’ve already heard the answers.
From the Democratic side: Of course not. Bush has led us into a quagmire in Iraq. His policies have created more terrorists, not fewer.
From the Republican side: Of course we’re safer. Isn’t it a great relief that we are fighting the terrorists over there rather than fighting them here?
The Monitor editorial board heard a version of the Republican argument this morning from Gov. George Pataki of New York. It’s better to have our soldiers fighting them there than our civilians fighting them here, he said.
But Pataki also used an analogy that resonated with me. He compared the War on Terror to the Cold War, in the sense that ideology was at the heart of both. Much as the Cold War was a fight between freedom and rigid state control, our current war is a fight between freedom and Islamic extremists who detest freedom. Without criticizing any past actions of the Bush administration, Pataki called for creating international alliances to join the United States, Britain and our few other allies in the fight.
On the drive to work this morning, I listened to The Exchange, the New Hampshire Public Radio talk show. The subject was the 45th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. This was a defining moment of the Cold War. Laura Knoy’s guest, Jackson Janes, a German studies professor from Johns Hopkins University, commented on whether people in the ensuing years thought the wall would ever be torn down. Someday, they said, “but not in my lifetime.”
I lived through the entire Cold War. Janes's “not in my lifetime” comment was apt. When the wall actually fell and the Soviet bloc disintegrated, I remember thinking that the mind-set of my generation had been stripped away. It was so sudden. One day, all world events had to be viewed through the East-West prism. The next day, the prism had disappeared. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History whose title and ideas struck a chord with us old Cold Warriors.
But of course history did not end. A new enemy found us: Islamic fundamentalists bent on destroying the West and all that we stand for.
As I listened to Professor Janes talk, a question occurred to me: Were the fears spawned by the Cold War – principally the Strangelovian madness of nuclear annihilation and the state control over individuals at the heart of the communist regime – more potent and present than the fears spawned by the War on Terror?
I don’t know the answer. Frankly, although I did duck-and-cover drills as a boy and served two years right at the Iron Curtain as a young man, I don’t remember ever being afraid. I can’t say the same about the War on Terror, but that may simply be that I know more now than I knew then. Or that my worries now are more focused on future generations - my children's and my grandchildren's - than on my own.
What I am sure of is that the politics of fear are empty, whichever side they come from. “Are we safer?” is the wrong question. It is also the perfect question for a political campaign – one with no clear answer and one bound to be polarizing.
I’m not quite sure what the right question is for the coming campaign and the 2008 presidential race, but it might go something like this: Which political leaders are best equipped and most inclined to persuade other free nations that the War on Terror is their fight, too?
Posted by Mike Pride at August 15, 2006 03:00 PM
Mike: I always enjoy reading your blog, even if I rarely comment upon it. I enjoyed this one, too, but I did need to comment on your "I don't ever remember being afraid." I suspect we are contemporaries (I'm turning 60 this year) and I recall very well two instances in which I thought the world would probably end very shortly. The first time was the Quemoy/Matsu crisis when I figured we were goners. I was in grade school at the time, but recall discussions with another young friend (who had no idea where the place was). The second time was the Cuban Missle Crisis when I was really upset because I didn't think I'd make it to my 16th birthday and get my driver's license. I believe there was another time in the mid-60's when I calculated whether I could get from western Pa to my parents house in Lakewood Ohio before the bomb fell. It may be that I was just a very anxious child, but I certainly recall times when I wasn't sure I'd live another week. Anyhow, keep up the good work!
Posted by: Betsy Snider at August 15, 2006 07:16 PM
I'm not sure I really accept the notion that we're better off fighting the terrorists over there than here in the USA.
No one has given us an apt description of the terrorists we are fighting. In particular, we need a statement of the number of terrorists who have put the entire world in turmoil.
Give it some thought; just how many individuals are we talking about. We have heard from many of the Muslim faith who do not support the radical terrorists' objective of destroying all non-believers Again, I ask, how many radicals are we talking about?
Quite frankly, I think fighting the "terrorists" here would be more productive and less costly in human terms certainly than the casualties currently inflicted upon us in a strange land.
Is there anyone who seriously believes an insurgency such as that in Iraq would or could sustain here? Do we really want to continue the sacrifice of hundreds of American military personnel in Iraq to prevent unknown losses on this side of the Atlantic? Our major problem is we have not had the enemy defined so we know what we are confronting. All we have is the federal administration's fear-inducing statement that we are better off fighting "them" in other countries.
The Bush administration continues to say whatever is necessary to keep the country's fear at peak level.
Posted by: John Stohrer at August 18, 2006 12:08 AM