Are we less safe?

The Democratic party, led by the dim demagogue Harry Reid, is taking the position that the U.S. is less safe now than it was on September 10, 2001. According to this article in the Washington Times, Reid relies on a report by something called the Third Way National Security Project (how early-1990s a name). “Third Way,” says the Times, is a group founded by Democrats who support gun control. Its president, Jonathan Cowan, served as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the second Clinton administration. It’s vice president for policy, Jim Kessler, was an aide to Senator Schumer. His areas of expertise appear to be gun control and domestic violence. The director of its national security project, Sharon Burke, is a veteran of Amnesty International, a former special assistant to Richard Armitage at the State Department, and a former speech writer in the Clinton Defense Department. In short, this is a partisan liberal interest group that possesses, so far as appears, no high degree of expertise in national security matters.

But let’s consider its conclusions. One way to analyze our comparative safety is to ask whether it is easier now for terrorists to attack our homeland than it was pre 9/11. This, I suspect, is the question a majority of Americans would find most probative.

It seems indisputable that it is now far more difficult for terrorists to attack us at home. Certainly, it is vastly more difficult for them to do so using airplanes — their method of choice both pre and (apparently) post 9/11. The security of our ports, our food and water supplies, and our mass transit has also increased to some degree, though it’s unclear by how much. In addition, it is more difficult for terrorists to enter the country. And we know much more about who the terrorists are and what they are saying (no thanks to Senator Reid, who once bragged about killing the Patriot Act, and who would like to make spying on and interrogating terrorists more difficult than it is now).

Terrorists also find it increasingly difficult to obtain the large sums of money required operate with maximum effectiveness thanks to the administration’s efforts, in conjuction with other countries, to prevent the transfer of needed funds. And they no longer have a cozy and secure space in which to plan their attacks.

“Third Way” counters that there are more terrorists now than before. I doubt that either “Third Way” or anyone else knows this to be true, but it’s not implausible. The number of terrorists apparently grew spectacularly during the Clinton years, and the success the terrorists enjoyed on 9/11 could easily have further swelled the terrorist ranks. It’s also possible that our military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq helped recruiting. But the real issue for purposes of assessing our safety is not the number of terrorists world-wide but their capacity to inflict harm on Americans. As noted, that has diminished.

In any event, as a matter of assessing how well the administration has done, which is what the Reid-“Third Way” exercise is all about, it’s odd to focus on the number of terrorists. The administration cannot, in the short run, control the number of people who elect to embrace, and die for, Islamofascism. The number of people who believed fanatically in fascism probably grew during FDR’s first two terms. The number of fanatic ideological Communists probably grew steadily from the Lincoln administration through the Eisenhower years. Historians don’t attach blame to any of these presidents, and it’s not clear why President Bush should be blamed if more people subscribe to fanatical Islamic ideologies than did when he took office. And at least Bush has a plausible long-term strategy for diminishing the appeal of such fanaticism — promoting democracy in the Middle East. Do the Democrats have any such strategy other than retreat and appeasement? If so, I haven’t heard Harry Reid articulate it.

“Third Way” also stresses that hostile nations such as North Korea and Iran have better weapons than they did prior to 9/11. North Korea certainly does and, to the extent that one thinks it might use them against the U.S., that fact reduces our safety. But again, it’s odd to blame the Bush administration for North Korean nukes. The Clinton administration, with an assist from Jimmy Carter, was the one that came up with the Agreed Framework under which North Korea was to abandon its nuclear aspirations. By the time it became clear that the Clintonista faith in North Korea’s promises was misplaced, North Korea essentially had already become “nuclear” and there was little Bush could do. But the Bush administration is doing the one meaningful thing it can do in response to North Korea’s development of nukes — it is pushing ahead with a missile defense program, a program that the Dems consistently have failed to get behind.

Iran will pose a significant new danger to the U.S. and its interests if it develops nuclear weapons. But only if this occurs, and only if there was something the Bush administration could have done to prevent it, will Bush be culpable on this score. As with the development of hostile ideologies, presidents ordinarily are not held responsible for improvements in the military technology of foreign powers, and it is particularly dishonest for a party that opposes preemptive war to attempt to assign such responsibility. However, given the stakes, it is fair to expect the Bush administration to use the military option to prevent a nuclear Iran, if such an effective option exists.

Finally, “Third Way” contends that we are less safe because we now have less influence with our allies than before. It’s clear that, as a general matter, our relations with certain allies have deteriorated (though in some cases, such as Germany, they seem to have improved). But I’m aware of no good evidence that our relations have deteriorated in ways that make us less safe. When it comes to fighting terrorists, we seem to be getting excellent cooperation pretty much across-the-board. And we are getting much more cooperation than we did pre-9/11 (though arguably still not enough) from key players like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Perhaps “Third Way” should stick to issues like gun control, low-cost housing, and domestic violence. Harry Reid can demagogue the war on terror well enough on his own.

UPDATE: In the foregoing discussion, I deliberately did not discuss whether the war in Iraq has made us more or less safe, since this issue is so steeped in controversy. In my view, though, we clearly are more safe by virtue of the fact that at least one of the three regimes that had moved down the road towards developing sophisticated weapons of mass destruction has been toppled and its replacement will not develop such weapons.