By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, July 18, 2005 8:00 AM
Americans are willing to spare no expense to ensure their safety. Thus the bill for the war in Iraq, which is soaring well into the $200 billions, would not be an issue at all if most people felt the essential policy -- making America safer -- was being met.
But apparently, fewer and fewer Americans believe this is the case. And this is becoming an even greater problem for President Bush, whose reputation has taken a hit. In the latest Gallup poll, taken shortly after terrorists struck London this month, the number of people who say the war in Iraq was not worth it climbed to 53 percent (compared to 44 percent who believe it was). Perhaps more significantly, only 40 percent of Americans think the war has made the United States safer from terrorism, compared to 52 percent who believe it has made America less safe.
These numbers represent an astonishing turn of events from the days leading up to the war through the president's battleship photo-op declaration of victory more than two years ago.
The president was only partly correct that day. America and its allies had won the battle to remove Saddam Hussein. But the war was just getting started.
Meanwhile, Iraq has surged ahead of "economy and growth" as the leading concern among Americans. And approval of the president's handling of Iraq has dropped five points from an already low 44 percent a month ago, compared to 55 percent disapproval, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.
The war in Iraq was billed as a war of necessity, an effort to make the nation safer. Even after the justification for war evaporated, many of the president's supporters argued that it accomplished its purpose -- the United States had not been attacked again after 9/11.
The terrorist attacks in London shattered some of that argument. While the United States wasn't attacked, its closest ally, Great Britain, was. And it was attacked in a way that struck home to many Americans, a fact evidenced by the jump in poll numbers of people who say they believe America will be attacked by terrorists in the near future.
So the question is, did Iraq make us safer?
In his best-selling book "America the Vulnerable: How Our Government Is Failing to Protect Us From Terrorism," Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. Coast Guard commander, argues essentially that Iraq was a "phony war" based on the president's oft-repeated assertion that America is "fighting the terrorists abroad so we don't have to face them at home."
Every nation, even one as rich as the United States, has finite resources. And America is spending large portions of its resources, both in terms of human and economic capital, fighting a conventional war against a nation-state that does not address America's biggest vulnerability -- its openness to unconventional attacks by terrorists who don't respect borders.
America remains astonishingly vulnerable to attacks from al Qaeda, which has morphed under Bush's watch, from an organization to a worldwide movement, Flynn argues.
"The degree to which the Bush administration is willing to invest in conventional national security spending relative to basic domestic security measures is considerable," Flynn argues in an article he wrote for Foreign Affairs magazine based on his book.
"Although the CIA has concluded that the most likely way weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would enter the United States is by sea, the federal government is spending more every three days to finance the war in Iraq than it has provided over the past three years to prop up the security of all 361 U.S. commercial seaports."
Flynn accuses the administration of a "myopic" focus on conventional military forces at the expense of domestic security. He draws this comparison: "In fiscal year 2005, Congress will give the Pentagon $7.6 billion to improve security at military bases. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security will receive just $2.6 billion to protect all the vital systems throughout the country that sustain a modern society."
I called Flynn this week to ask him if the nation's priorities were so horribly skewed, why hadn't America been attacked again? And perhaps couldn't it be surmised that the terrorists attacked Madrid and London instead of, say Washington or New York, because it was easier to do so?
Flynn argues that this would be an improper conclusion to draw.
Here's the gist of the argument he gave me: Al Qaeda and al Qaeda-inspired terrorists are patient. They seek maximum bang for the buck, so to speak. As they did in Madrid and London, the terrorists build a three-cell unit. The first is the leadership or operations cell. The second is the reconnaissance team, which scouts potential targets for risk and reward. And the third is the action cell, which carries out the attack.
Building this sort of operation can take many years, and the risks are high. And once the action unit attacks, it creates an instant forensics trail that "creates an operational security problem. If you use it for a relatively low-end thing, you put your organization at risk for little gain and you have to start over again."
In London, investigators learned much about the attackers quickly, just as American investigators did after 9/11. It could take the terrorists years to recover in London, as it has in America. But they will be back, Flynn argues, because there will always be enough "angry young men who can possess powerful weapons of destruction" to target a nearly endless supply of soft targets.
Iraq has not changed that equation one bit, Flynn argues. It has only diverted resources from the more pragmatic approach of targeting and hunting down terrorists around the world and, even more important, bolstering domestic security.
Flynn does not argue that every soft target could ever be protected by the government. But he does say that the administration has done shockingly little to prioritize threats and protect such resources as nuclear plants, domestic military bases, the electric grid, the water supply and private-industry chemical plants near major metropolitan areas.
Flynn is not antiwar. Afghanistan was a proper target, he said, because terrorists were running their operations there and the government was protecting them.
The U.S. administration and its hawks are stuck in a "state-centric perspective, cold war idea that deterrence is about overwhelming power and offense. But that has nothing to do with the overwhelming reality of this threat."
In his Foreign Affairs article, Flynn wrote that "the United States is fighting the war it prepared for in the twentieth century, rather than the one that is being waged upon it by al Qaeda ... the Pentagon is executing its long-standing forward defense strategy, which involves leapfrogging ahead of U.S. borders and waging combat on the turf of U.S. enemies or allies. Meanwhile, protecting the rear -- the American nation itself -- remains largely outside the scope of national security even though the September 11 attacks were launched from the United States on targets within the United States."
Bush's critics argue that Iraq was made politically possible by the natural urge to punish someone for the travesty of 9/11. Iraq might have sated an emotional response, but it did little to address the pragmatic problem of how to make America safer.
For a long time, many Americans believed that Iraq was directly involved in 9/11, and that the war was a part of the effort to vanquish the terrorists who attacked us that day. The fact that few people believe that today may have much to do with the president's declining popularity and the declining confidence in his honesty.