The War's Realists

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

"We're fighting the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan and across the world so we do not have to face them here at home."

That's what President Bush said in his speech yesterday at the FBI Academy in Quantico. After the attacks on Britain, our closest ally in the war on terrorism, it is an astonishing thing to say. "It's a very insensitive statement with regard to the British," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). "Tony Blair must absolutely have blanched when he heard that."

What does Bush's statement mean? Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Fran Townsend, the president's homeland security adviser, said that the war in Iraq attracts terrorists "where we have a fighting military and a coalition that can take them on and not have the sort of civilian casualties that you saw in London."

Huh? If British troops fighting in Iraq did not stop the terrorists from striking London, then what is the logic for believing that American troops fighting in Iraq will stop terrorists from striking our country again? Intelligence reports -- and Townsend's own words -- suggest that Iraq has become a terrorist breeding ground since the American invasion. How, exactly, has that made us safer?

It is time for a policy on terrorism that is based on more than ideology and the rote incantations the president has been offering for four years. The horror in London should force intelligent politicians to ask fundamental questions: What will it take to achieve success in Iraq? And how should our homeland security policy be adjusted to make the United States safer?

As it happens, some politicians are doing just that. Yesterday Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a report on his visit to Iraq last week. It is refreshingly balanced and free of ideology. The good news, Levin said, is that there is "a high level of optimism" among Iraqis that they will meet the Aug. 15 deadline for writing a draft constitution. The bad news is that the "insurgency is not weakening and that the flow of foreign jihadists into Iraq has increased."

What's needed, he says, is a clear American signal to the Iraqis that they must meet the deadline on the constitution. We also need a "road map for Iraqis taking ownership of the risks and responsibility for their own security and survival."

"If there is any prospect of defeating the insurgency," Levin argues, "we need to make clear to the Iraqis that if they are unable to reach agreement on the constitution, we will reconsider our presence in Iraq and that all options will be on the table, including withdrawal."

Levin's call for "measurable benchmarks" is designed to make clear how many Iraqi units "capable of counterinsurgency operations" will be needed "so that coalition units can first withdraw from cities and other visible locations and begin a withdrawal from the country as a whole."

Levin is calling for a policy of achievement, not cut-and-run. As he puts it: "Without adopting and implementing a measured and credible plan, coalition forces could be needed for an indeterminate time. Without such a plan, Iraqis may never assume responsibility for taking back their country from the insurgents and taking the risks and making the compromises necessary to chart their own destiny."

As for homeland security, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is pushing for new formulas to direct more federal money to the places most at risk -- specifically large, urban centers -- and to solving problems that have taken a back seat to high-profile concerns.

"We have overinvested in airline security at the expense of mass transit but also chemical security and our ports," Collins, who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said in an interview. "We always look backward, rather than anticipate the next threat."

Collins's new formulas probably won't satisfy the especially vulnerable citizens of large metropolitan areas. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has been rightly critical of Congress for "treating homeland security funding like a political pork barrel." Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York both favor big increases in federal help for transit security. But Collins is at least moving in the right direction and asking the right questions. And she pledges to pass a chemical plant security bill that has, up to now, languished in a Washington lobbyist hell.

"America will not retreat in the face of terrorists and murderers," the president declared yesterday. Absolutely. But neither can we retreat behind a haze of rhetoric and ideology that contributes nothing to the fight against terrorism.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company