Thursday, July 20, 2006

National Insecurity Policy

Everybody get a grip. Now listen to me carefully: Whenever you hear someone talking about wars (with emphasis on the plural) in the Middle East, global terrorism, plots uncovered in the United States and Canada, porous borders, WMD, crazy dictators, and other manifestations of a world gone mad, just take a deep breath and remember that there is an important election in the United States in just a little over 100 days. We're getting ready to play another round of "Fear Factor."

Just to be clear, there are some very bad things going on in the world. If I were a Republican running for Congress in 2006, I would not want to be judged on my party's handling of the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan, Arab-Israeli relations, nuclear weapons proliferation, the hunt for Bin Laden, Darfur, energy costs, or much of anything else that doesn't lie safely in the future. I'd be running instead on how much worse things might still get--and I'd be hoping fear might affect voters' memory of how we got to this point.

Newt Gingrich is not running for office, but that hasn't stopped him from sounding like a candidate this week while campaigning for others. He's been saying similar things in many different places this week, but here's the core of his message: "The civilized world stands balanced between victory and defeat." Really? Look, I'm no fan of George W. Bush's foreign policy, but even I don't think he's taken us to the brink of an epochal defeat in just five years.

What's the meaning of this "crisis of civilization" claptrap? Well, it's a call to the ramparts. It's saber rattling. It's a warning that war is just around the corner.

No, wait. We're already in a war--"fighting the terrorists over there so we don't have to fight them over here," if I remember correctly.

I'd say there's still a lot of politically motivated fear-mongering going on, but there also seems to be some insanity circulating. And it's getting increasingly difficult to tell the two apart.

A second case in point: Last summer, Senator George Voinovich of Ohio urged President Bush to withdraw his nomination of John Bolton as the U.S. representative to the UN. Now, trying to explain in today's Washington Post why he intends to support Bolton when President Bush re-nominates him (as he must, having made a recess appointment last summer), Voinovich says, "I cannot imagine a worse message to send to the terrorists . . . than to drag out a possible renomination process or even replace the person our president has entrusted to lead our nation at the United Nations." Come again? Replacing a divisive and incompetent UN representative would be good for "the terrorists" in what way?

(Time out. No one who makes an argument that references "the terrorists" without specifying which terrorists should be taken seriously. Terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology. Those who use terrorist tactics have many different, and often incompatible, interests. Some terrorists might celebrate if John Bolton were replaced, especially if his successor were someone who believed that what we need in the world is more violent jihad, but the vast majority of terrorists in the world really don't care who represents the United States in the UN.)

Back to Senator Voinovich. If more evidence is needed that his views on this matter are not to be taken seriously, consider this statement from the opening paragraph of his essay: "Recently, despite our nation's best efforts, the world--and particularly the Middle East--has become a more dangerous and volatile place." Excuse me, Senator. Did you say "despite our nation's best efforts"? Which efforts are you thinking of? Perhaps an over-zealous staff member trying to protect your right flank changed your original "because of our nation's botched policies."

If my tone in this post sounds a little more exasperated than usual, there's a reason. One of the chief responsibilities of any government is to ensure the security of its citizens. Socialists and libertarians can agree on this point while disagreeing on every other possible function of government. Security is a state of mind--a sense of safety--that is affected both by the "facts on the ground" and by our perceptions of what is happening. Bombs falling around us create insecurity, but so does the belief that an attack may be imminent.

A government may fail in its duty to ensure the security of its citizens by creating (or failing to prevent) conditions that are objectively dangerous, but (and this is often overlooked) it can also fail by generating unwarranted fears. When Newt Gingrich, out campaigning for Republican congressional candidates, urges President Bush to start talking about World War III; when President Bush himself uses that language (perhaps Newt wasn't listening); and when a prominent Republican senator says that we'll be doing "the terrorists" a favor if the Senate doesn't confirm John Bolton, fear is being manufactured. National security policy is being overturned in favor of politically expedient insecurity.