Why the Republicans can’t fight terror

Driven by rigid right-wing ideology, their heavy-handed policies have made America and the world less safe, not more.

Topics: George W. Bush, Republican Party, Terrorism, Iraq, Middle East

Vice President Cheney says that he and President Bush should be reelected because they alone know how to respond adequately to the terrorist threat. His Democratic opponents could never fight terrorism with sufficient élan, he elaborates, because they are trapped in “a pre-9/11 mind-set.” They view terrorism as large-scale criminality, he says, to be fought by policemen and prosecutors within the bounds of law, while he and Bush see the battle against terror with open eyes, as a worldwide war against an implacable enemy to be waged with whatever means the White House and the Pentagon deem effective.

But the 2001-2004 Bush/Cheney record provides no support for the boast that Republicans are well equipped to fight transnational terrorism. On the contrary, that record, both before 9/11 and after, reveals an ideologically driven administration that has consistently made disastrously wrong decisions about how to fight terrorism.

Before 9/11, as we know from Bush’s former top anti-terrorism advisor, Richard Clarke, the Bush administration cavalierly downplayed the terrorist threat. Prisoners of its own “pre-9/11 mind-set,” it focused on extremely expensive and technically unproven Cold War programs such as ballistic missile defense, utterly irrelevant to the war on terror, and exhibited only lukewarm interest in ongoing programs to limit WMD proliferation.

The Bush administration’s distracted security policy and irresponsible neglect of proliferation and the terrorist threat was presaged, we should remember, by the Clinton impeachment. The passionate drive to humiliate and weaken a sitting commander in chief revealed the Republican leadership’s deep conviction, fed by ignorance and arrogance, that the world was no longer an especially dangerous place for the sole surviving superpower.

True, Cheney and Bush have both said that 9/11, from out of the blue, roused them from their pre-9/11 complacency about terrorism. And we should take them at their word. But they awoke feeling disoriented. Faced with something altogether new, they reverted to old and comforting habits.



The administration’s response to 9/11 was manifestly shaped by a pre-9/11 agenda, even if the political support that Bush needed to carry out his highly risky invasion of Iraq did not materialize before the terrorist attack. After shattering the Taliban regime and driving al-Qaida further underground (without capturing its leadership), Cheney and Bush marketed their Iraq war plan by presenting it, mendaciously, as a justified response to 9/11 (based on false claims that Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qaida) and also as preventive self-defense against an imminent threat of a WMD strike on the U.S. When these two selling points crumpled under inspection, the administration shifted to the refrain “the world is better off without Saddam Hussein,” as if Saddam’s well-documented malignity, in and of itself, were an adequate casus belli. This phrase is rhetorically shrewd, because of its bumper-sticker simplicity: Anyone honestly trying to rebut it is forced into a complicated explanation, difficult for television reporters and audiences to absorb. But it is morally and politically despicable, because it obscures the real issue.

A reasonable answer requires a reasonable question. The question should not be: Would the world be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power? The politically responsible question, instead, is: Has the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq made the world and the U.S. safer than before? The answer to this question, obfuscated by Bush electioneering, is most certainly no, and that means, as perverse as it may seem, that the world is not better off with Hussein removed from power in this way, at this cost, with these consequences. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has weakened American national security because Bush’s unimaginably clumsy management of postwar Iraq has swollen the ranks of young, enraged and lethally armed anti-American jihadists; has irritated and alienated potential partners around the world; and has tied down scarce national-security assets that we desperately need to confront much more dangerous and imminent threats.

To understand why a Republican administration has been unable to mount an effective war against terror, however, we need to look behind Cheney and Bush, and even behind the neocon architects and champions of the war in Iraq. The roots of the Republican failure to make us safer lie deeper. They can be traced, once again, to a distinctively Republican “pre-9/11 mind-set.” This mind-set can be boiled down to a set of fundamental beliefs. When we measure these beliefs against the requirements of an effective counterterrorism strategy, we quickly understand why it would be a calamity for American national security if Cheney and Bush were reelected on Nov. 2.

1) Government is the problem, not the solution.

Hostility to government, distrust of government, the need to downsize government, to get government “off our backs” — these are the central tenets of Republican political philosophy. But an effective war against transnational terrorism is violently at odds with these primitive anti-governmental passions.

Having come into office boasting about its distrust of government, the Bush administration fell into rhetorical and mental confusion on the morning of 9/11. If he had been completely faithful to his principles, Bush would have mechanically announced: “It is your money, and therefore you cannot have airport security.” But he obviously could not say anything of the kind. That is, a gap opened up between an irresistible public need for government action and the administration’s ideological discomfort with government action. This rude clash between necessary policies and memorized slogans was by no means harmless.

Deep down, Bush and Cheney do not believe that the government has any business managing collective resources to solve common problems. This seems to be one reason why they have been dragging their feet on homeland security. Preparations for a bio-terrorist attack in a major urban center cannot be left up to the free-market or individual initiative. To stockpile vaccines, community assets must be managed by public officials. The administration is not inactive in these areas, of course. It bows to practical necessity, but it does so in a halfhearted way because vigorous government action contradicts its anti-government reflexes. When defending tax cuts during a national emergency, revealingly, administration spokesmen routinely lapse into pre-9/11 rhetoric. Without thinking it through, they recycle their claim that private individuals invariably know how to use their money better than the government. Its residual attachment to this pre-9/11 idea goes a long way toward explaining why the administration has shortchanged domestic preparedness against a future terrorist attack.

An implicit hostility to government power also helps explain the administration’s greatest strategic mistake, namely its failure to prepare for postwar chaos in Iraq. Gingrich types who hate government and love to shut it down are the last people who should be setting up a new one. In the Republicans’ anti-government worldview, moreover, there seems to be no place for the idea of a “power vacuum.” Those who think that all evil stems from “too much government” are dangerously insensitive to the dangers of anarchy and state failure. If they had been less rigidly ideological, they would have heeded Gen. Eric Shinseki’s advice and provided enough troops to control the looting and mayhem after the fall of Saddam. (The GOP’s cluelessness on this subject was epitomized by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s preposterous comment, made at the height of the looting, that “Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”) Before being elected, Bush honestly conveyed the discomfort Republicans naturally feel with state building. So deep ideological hostility to state power is also one of the reasons his administration has managed the stabilization process in Iraq so poorly. Because American national security is endangered by state weakness and state collapse around the world, we cannot trust our future to those who are viscerally opposed to governmental power.

2) American freedom depends on unregulated markets and unquestioning faith in private enterprise.

The flip side of Republican hostility to government is an unquestioning trust in the private sector, understood as a dynamic realm of individual initiative that must be freed from surveillance and asphyxiating control by pushy bureaucrats. The problem is that unregulated markets and politically unaccountable profit-seeking enterprises, treated as almost sacred in Republican ideology, present serious obstacles to an effective counterterrorism strategy. Transnational terrorists may or may not require state sponsorship, but they certainly rely on free markets to purchase the instruments (say, ammonium nitrate) with which to inflict mass casualties on Americans. Several private flight training schools, owned by American entrepreneurs, took cash to teach the 9/11 hijackers how to fly. These businessmen made a profit and did not pay excessive attention to the possibly negative downstream consequences of their profit-making activity on the safety of their fellow Americans.

Democrats are relatively better equipped than Republicans to wage war on terrorism because, while both recognize the many virtues of laxly regulated markets, the former have a less dogmatic and more pragmatic attitude toward government regulation of private business. Republicans seem ideologically incapable of closing this important breach in our defenses. Their wholly uncritical devotion to free enterprise blinds them to the obvious reality that private businesses, focused on near-term profit making, are not the best guardians of American national security. (The unprecedented, and highly problematic, use of private contractors to perform military duties in Iraq is an example.)

3) Anti-poverty programs are contrary to “freedom.”

The Republicans are ideologically and dogmatically opposed to nonmarket distributions of community resources from rich to poor, even when it is self-evident that such distributions are politically stabilizing. Underlying this hostility to nonmarket distributions is a tacit conviction that there can never be too much economic inequality in a society. This set of beliefs, like those discussed above, would probably prevent any Republican administration, and certainly an ideologically rigid administration such as the one we now have, from waging an effective war against transnational terrorism. The point is not that poverty “causes” terrorism, but rather that lack of economic opportunity increases the pool from which terrorist organizations can recruit. The Marshall Plan was a nonmarket distribution, designed to stabilize an unstable part of the world and to weaken support for anti-American ideas and political movements. An equivalent today would be massive American support to the Pakistani government, earmarked to wrest control of elementary education from private religious charities. Strategically, this makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, it conflicts violently with a Republican mind-set that compulsively denigrates all government spending and nonmarket redistributions of assets from rich to poor.

4) Both scriptural fundamentalism and religious proselytizing in foreign countries are forces for good in the world.

Another reason why the Bush administration has failed to bring the terrorist threat into clear focus is that it cannot think coherently about the role of religion in the current conflict. We are faced with enemies who believe with unflinching certainty that they “know” God’s will and who even assert that, in the current global conflict, they are instruments of a divine plan. Bush cannot speak to America about these demented beliefs. He probably cannot even think about them in private. The reason is obvious. Admittedly, his administration has moved to shut down private Islamic charities that were funneling money to al-Qaida. But Bush cannot bring the role of religious certainty and proselytizing zeal into focus, as an effective counterterrorism strategy demands, because his party is too thoroughly implicated in this form of hallucination itself.

5) Private individuals have an inalienable right to keep AK-47s in their homes.

Associated more with the Republican Party than with the Democrats, Second Amendment fundamentalism is violently at odds with an effective war on terrorism. In Pakistan’s on-again, off-again battle against al-Qaida, Pervez Musharraf has been attempting to disarm violent young men in the Northwest Frontier Province. The Bush administration is no doubt supporting him in words and deeds. But what does the NRA have to say about this egregious violation of the right to bear arms? True, the U.S. Constitution does not apply in Pakistan. But what about the underlying principle that all individuals have a “natural right” to protect themselves against their government? The Republicans are inhibited from making us safer for this reason too. The current war to defend ourselves against transnational terrorism obviously requires us to make dangerous weapons inaccessible to private individuals. But the dependence of our basic freedoms on the banning of military-style weapons seems almost impossible for Republicans to articulate or understand.

6) Strict adherence to law and the Constitution is a recipe for failure in the war against terror.

In boasting that the Republicans alone are competent to fight terrorism, Cheney accused the Democrats of interpreting terrorism as a form of criminality. That is an unforgivable blunder, he went on to say, since we are actually engaged in a “war” where due process and other legal niceties must frequently be set aside. But the Bush administration’s dismissive attitude toward “law,” revealed in the infamous torture memos and elsewhere, is one of the major reasons why it has waged the war on terror with such stunning incompetence. “Law” is not simply an obstacle to executive-branch flexibility, as the Republicans claim. For one thing, a central purpose of law is to filter out disinformation, stemming from witness malice, and to ensure that decision making is based on double-checked facts. Cheney’s and Bush’s cavalier attitude toward law is based on their belief that, in the face of a potentially catastrophic terror attack, we need to unleash lethal force long before sketchy intelligence matures into trustworthy evidence.

A direct consequence of this doctrine was their decision to invade Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence (provided by Iraqi exiles with an ax to grind) that could have been corrected if ordinary decision-making procedures (“law”) had been respected. The Abu Ghraib scandal, as Seymour Hersh and others have reported, was the direct consequence of a decision, made at the top levels of the Bush administration, that the U.S. was not bound by the international laws of war, including the Geneva Convention, in fighting terrorism. The constitutional system of checks and balances is based on the premise that all decision makers are fallible and can benefit from adversarial process. The administration’s persistent attempt to dismantle legislative and judicial oversight of executive action, thereby doing an end run around constitutionally established mechanisms for political self-correction, has made the country stupider and more vulnerable, not stronger, in the war against transnational terror. (It has also made a mockery of Bush’s claim to be exporting democratic transparency and accountability to the Middle East.)

7) The only serious threats facing the U.S. are threats the U.S. can handle militarily.

On paper, the Bush administration has accurately described the new security environment in which the U.S. finds itself after the Cold War. The two principal threats to U.S. national security are the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and nonstate terrorist groups who are not susceptible to deterrence and who, using smuggling routes difficult for U.S. authorities to shut down, may eventually be able to deliver a WMD to a U.S. urban center. So why has the Bush administration allowed itself to get sidetracked from tackling these dire threats? If it were serious about WMD proliferation, it would have given much more serious attention to Russia, for example. And if it were serious about nonstate terrorists, it would have been much more aggressive along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Instead, it has expended more than a thousand U.S. lives, countless Iraqi ones and a vast treasure to topple a dictator who, even in a worst case, presented only a relatively remote threat to U.S. security.

One reason that the Bush counterterrorism strategy has gone so disastrously awry is that the Republicans are ideologically and dogmatically committed to the proposition that military means are invariably the most effective means for dealing with threats to U.S. security. The Republicans cannot be trusted to wage an effective war on terrorism, because the principal means for combating nonstate terrorism is not military force but international police cooperation and the principal means for combating proliferation is not military force but tightening up the existing international nonproliferation regime. Although military force and the threat of military force can be useful in these efforts, it cannot be the principal tool. But the Republicans will never agree to reduce the excessive proportion of our national security assets that currently flow to the Pentagon, even though the Pentagon, the right tool for countering the Soviet threat, is the wrong tool for countering the terrorist threat. That is another reason why they must be replaced.

8) The only serious threats facing the U.S. are threats that the U.S. can handle alone.

The cheers that arose at the Republican Convention every time a speaker maligned the United Nations or France are characteristic of the ingrained parochialism and xenophobia of the Republican Party. True, it is not possible to rule the world through the United Nations. But neither is it possible to enhance U.S. security without voluntary cooperation from other countries. There is no such thing as unilateral counterproliferation. There is no such thing as unilateral counterterrorism. These are contradictions in terms. The instinctive unilateralism of the Republican Party has made America less safe. The seething hatred that people around the world feel for George W. Bush has made America less safe. This is because the principal instrument for shutting down terrorist networks is information. To fight terrorism, the U.S. needs extensive linguistic and cultural knowledge about remote and inaccessible parts of the world. This knowledge exists, but most of it is in the heads of non-Americans whose cooperation with our efforts we must assiduously seek.

The Republicans have proved such incompetent managers of American national security, among other reasons, because they have not designed a counterterrorism strategy with an eye to maximizing the useful information available to U.S. decision makers. On the contrary, their blunderbuss tactics of poorly targeted intimidation and violence have shut down many vital channels of information. The inability of Americans to communicate effectively with the rest of the world has now become a serious danger to our national security. There is very little chance that this defiant and self-defeating ignorance of and indifference to the rest of mankind will be mitigated under a Republican administration. That is just one more reason to pray, and vote, for a change.

The Bush administration’s manifest failure to make us safer has ideological roots. American national security has been put at risk because of the Republicans’ own “pre-9/11 mind-set.” This mind-set includes distrust of centralized government, unquestioning faith in the private sector, hostility to nonmarket distributions, sympathy with religious certainty and scriptural fundamentalism, the belief that freedom demands an unregulated market in military-style weaponry, unawareness that “law” protects decision makers from disinformation, a proclivity to apply military solutions to nonmilitary problems, and a reluctance to take the interests and opinions of other countries into account. This dogmatic and erroneous set of beliefs and dispositions has prevented Cheney and Bush from coming to a clear understanding of the unprecedented threats we face and devising an adequate response.

We need to take seriously their steadfast refusal to admit even their most obvious mistakes. If reelected, they are promising, apparently without embarrassment, to continue unswervingly on the path that has brought us where we are today. If we want to know how they will conduct the war against terrorism in a second term, we need only examine the mess they have wrought over the past three years. Bush’s and Cheney’s spectacular mishandling of the war on terror has many causes, but none more important than the stale ideology that continues to becloud and paralyze their minds.

Stephen Holmes is a professor at the New York University School of Law and author of several books, most recently "The Cost of Rights" (with Cass Sunstein).

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