Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Dean: Misplaced priorities leave our nation vulnerable

by Howard Dean
Special for The Arizona Republic
Sept. 6, 2003 12:00 AM

After the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 awoke America to the danger of terrorism, making Americans more secure should have been our nation's top priority.

Instead, after some initially positive steps, the Bush administration abandoned the war on terror for other misplaced priorities. It chose a domestic agenda of tax cuts for a few wealthy Americans and a foreign policy focused solely on Iraq. Almost two years later, the president has turned the largest budget surplus in history into the largest budget deficit, and much of the work necessary to protect us from the threat posed by terrorists remains undone. As a result, all Americans, at home and abroad, are less secure today - economically, politically and strategically.

The president's focus on passing reckless tax cuts and the resulting budget shortfall have left the United States without the resources to adequately protect against possible terrorist strikes and unprepared to deal with the aftermath of an attack. The critical requirements of our first line of defense - police, firefighters and hospital emergency workers - have become unfunded budget mandates imposed upon local and state governments.

There are no mandatory security standards at the 123 chemical facilities in the United States, any one of which could, if attacked, put up to a million people at risk. Just last week, a Wall Street Journal report confirmed that our airports remain dangerously - and unacceptably - vulnerable. Two years after the CIA failed to tell the FBI about terrorists on their watch list, nine agencies maintain 12 lists of suspected terrorists containing overlapping but not identical data. We still are inspecting only a tiny fraction of the containers that enter the United States by sea, rail or road - any one of which could contain materials to kill millions. And hundreds of tons of Russian nuclear material, chemical agents and biological pathogens remain unsecured. Addressing most of these priorities is a simple matter of resources - yet resources are not available due to today's budget crisis.

Worse, what little the Bush administration has done domestically to try to make us safer, it has done poorly. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security has triggered a bureaucratic turf war, drawing resources and attention away from the real war on terror. The color-coded national threat advisory system has needlessly scared the public and failed to provide any useful information. No one knows what to do when the administration changes the color from yellow to orange. The administration's mistreatment and religious and ethnic profiling of Arabs and Muslims has unnecessarily alienated groups whose assistance we vitally need to win this war.

They don't just go away
On the international front, Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mohammed Omar remain at large. Far from being destroyed, terrorist network al-Qaida has dispersed and been reconstituted - with Osama bin Laden reported to have convened a terrorist summit in the Afghan mountains just last April. The Taliban is again on the move, threatening the safety and security of whole swaths of Afghanistan.

North Korea, a known weapons proliferator, is threatening to test a nuclear bomb - the Hermit Kingdom is in such dire financial straits that selling nuclear materials is a chillingly real possibility. Progress in completing the Israel-Palestinian "road map to peace" has come to a full stop, fueling the skepticism toward the United States that much of the Middle East now exhibits. The lack of planning for the stabilization and rebuilding of Iraq has led to a significantly more dangerous situation than existed before the war by creating a magnet for terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, seeking to kill Americans. Furthermore, the way the administration has arrogantly carried out the war in Iraq has alienated the friends and allies whose cooperation is integral to our success in combating terrorism, not only in Iraq, but everywhere around the world.

It is unfortunate that the issue of America's security has ever made its way into the political realm. Bipartisan statesmen and panels of experts who have examined the issue - from Warren Rudman to George Schultz to William Perry - overwhelmingly agree on what needs to be done to respond to the security threats facing our country. This clear consensus should have led to bipartisan agreement, resulting in swift passage of initiatives to make all Americans safer. Instead, lacking the will to abandon their reckless tax cuts to fund these necessary measures, the president and Republicans in Congress have questioned the patriotism of those who have challenged their policies - whether on Iraq, North Korea or other critical issues.

Before it is too late, we must take the steps that most agree will make us truly safer. This will require forcefully challenging terrorism in a united effort with other nations, improving domestic security and enlisting Arab and Muslim countries' support for the war on terror.

We're not in this alone
To win the war on terror, we must be prepared to use the iron fist of our superb military. These efforts must be aggressive and make better use of special-operations forces and CIA operatives. All aspects of U.S. power need to be more effectively employed and coordinated in a joint effort with other nations. To accomplish this, we must stop conducting a foreign policy based on petulance and stop browbeating and berating our friends and allies. Such playground politics only alienates other nations and weakens our national security - with no apparent upside.

In the past, other countries have followed our lead because they respected us. It is vital that we repair these damaged relations and regain the respect of the world. We cannot win the war on terror on our own. We will be more effective and carry less of the burden if others join us in this effort.

To defeat terrorism, we need to work vigorously to defend America at home. We must improve U.S. intelligence and step up counterterrorism collaboration. We need to systematically assess threats and vulnerabilities and fix the greatest gaps in our defenses first - safeguarding chemical facilities against attack, protecting our ports by inspecting more ships, and improving how information is shared across all federal agencies and all levels of government so that everyone can work in tandem to prevent attacks and respond effectively if they occur.

Security begins at home
We must give the nation's first defenders and responders the resources and training they need; improve communication systems; and clarify the appropriate roles for federal, state and local government. We should also make homeland security a core mission of the National Guard. And we must fund homeland security research and development, including safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals, innovative approaches to container security and better controls over nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological materials here and abroad.

We must also enlist support in the Arab and Muslim world. The United States must mount an aggressive campaign to win the hearts and minds of those less fortunate and more susceptible to being won over by terrorists' fraudulent promises.

Too many politicians think in terms of two- or four-year cycles, and we need to fundamentally change the way we approach the task. To do so, we must go beyond superficial statements declaring, "We are not against Islam." We must think and act more broadly to address the real economic and social contradictions that plague Arab and Muslim countries with a long-term plan that encourages economic reform and promotes democracy, tolerance, human rights and equal opportunity for women. We must work with our friends and allies around the world to give the people a reason to hope rather than despair.


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