Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » July 2004 » Are we safer?

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07/19/2004: Are we safer?

Fred Kaplan of Slate adds his $0.02 to the question of "Is the world safer thanks to his policies?" The answer: Maybe in Bush's fantasy world; but it's difficult to say that it bears much resemblance to the real world.

Earlier this week, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, home of the Y-12 nuclear-weapons facility, in Tennessee, President Bush gave one of his best-written speeches. This was his "America is safer" speech, and we will no doubt hear variations on it many times in the next four months. In it, he lists the world's hot spots, one by one (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan), contrasts what each was like three years ago with what it's like now, and concludes each success story with the refrain, "and the American people are safer." After the last item on the checklist, he expands the viewfinder, exclaiming, "and America and the world are safer."

It's a very effective speech (the Oak Ridge scientists greeted each repetition with stormy applause), unless you take a closer look at the examples it cites—in which case questions of comparative safety (are you safer now than you were three years ago?) seem at best ambiguous and in some cases downright depressing.


It looks like Qaddafi knew his nuclear program was going nowhere—he'd tried it once before, in the 1980s, to no avail. Then he got caught. Meanwhile, his economy was tanking. And maybe he sensed it would be a good idea, for now, to chummy up to the West. So, he made a big deal of giving up something he didn't really have, with hopes of reaping a big reward in return.

That's fine. But it had little, if anything, to do with what Bush calls America's "new approach in the world" after 9/11.

About Afghanistan, Bush's speech celebrated the crushing of the Taliban and the new reign of Hamid Karzai, "a good and just president." The military defeat of the Taliban was indeed Bush's singularly great accomplishment. But what happened afterward? The U.S. troops left in place—even with NATO assistance—were too paltry to stabilize the territory. As a result, warlords are once again slicing up the country. Elections have been put off due to poor security. Poppy growth and subsequent heroin exports to Europe are at nearly an all-time high. Taliban fighters are gaining ground here and there. And the eastern border to Pakistan, not at all secure, almost certainly still harbors Osama Bin Laden.

On Iraq, Bush—as usual—was very careful with his language. Three years ago, he told the Oak Ridge scientists, Iraq was ruled by "a proven mass murderer who refused to account for weapons of mass murder." (Note: "weapons of mass murder," not "weapons of mass destruction"; and "refused to account for," not "refused to disarm.") Now, Bush went on, Iraq is "becoming an example of reform to the region." Because America "helped to end the violent regime of Saddam Hussein, and because we're helping to raise a peaceful democracy in its place, the American people are safer."

As the pundits say, that remains to be seen. Maybe Iraq will emerge from the chaos as an exemplar of reform; maybe it will slide further into chaos and only encourage neighboring tyrannies to intensify their clampdowns. Meanwhile, terrorists, who it turns out didn't enjoy safe haven in Iraq before the war, have carved out camps in its aftermath. Leading Shiites are forming unsettling alliances with Iran. The Kurds are balking at any incursions on their autonomy. And, in the first month of Iraqi sovereignty, the most cherished consumer item for many citizens—thousands line up for one—is a passport to get the hell out of there.


Most troublesome of all are Bush's claims about nuclear proliferation. Yes, Western intelligence agencies traced and shut down A.Q. Khan's vast black-market supply network and even persuaded the Pakistani government to relieve him of his duties (if not to punish him personally). Good has also come of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a truly multilateral effort to police nuclear trafficking.

However, the world's most alarming and concrete instance of proliferation—the open emergence of North Korea as a nuclear state—has been appallingly mishandled by the Bush administration. For over a year, Bush refused even to discuss the matter with the North Koreans, despite their clear desire to negotiate. A month ago, he finally offered a deal nearly identical to the deal the North Koreans offered us at the beginning of 2003—but it's too late. They have since moved much closer to mass production of A-bombs, and so they've stiffened their terms. Possibly even more than the war in Iraq, this could go down as Bush's deepest diplomatic disaster.

This says nothing of the frustrated effort to stall Iran's nuclear program. Bush didn't say much about that, either.
The Madison, Wisconsin Capital Times puts it very nicely:
The man, who more than a year ago declared that the heavy lifting in Iraq was done, only to discover that the fight had barely started, is now back with another over-the-top pronouncement. "Today," Bush said last week, "because America has acted and because America has led, the forces of terror and tyranny have suffered defeat after defeat, and America and the world are safer."

By any measure, the president is wrong.

Iraq, which posed no serious threat to the United States before the invasion, is now a chaotic and dangerous nightmare - not just for the 135,000 American soldiers who continue to occupy it, but for the world. Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups that had not previously operated there - because of the militant secularism of former dictator Saddam Hussein and his ruling Baath Party - appear now to be operating in many regions of the country.

In Afghanistan, from which resources were redirected to fight the Iraq war, there is now talk of delaying elections because the Taliban is resurgent. And beyond Kabul, there is little order.

North Korea has reportedly quadrupled its nuclear weapons capacity in a year.

Iran is reportedly developing the capacity to create nuclear weapons.

Osama bin Laden remains at large, and his al-Qaida terrorist network continues to strike - not just in Madrid, where this year's train bombings killed more than 200 people, but around the world. Indeed, according to the U.S. government's own analysis, terrorist incidents have been on the rise over the past two years.

Earlier this month, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared with Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge to raise a warning that al-Qaida might attack the United States this year in order to disrupt the political process - perhaps even targeting the November election itself. While there was plenty of speculation that Cheney and Ridge were hyping domestic threats for political advantage, the new warning would seem to contradict Bush's claim that the terrorists are on the run and American and the world are safer.

How can the president be so ill-informed? How can he not recognize what people around the planet, and an ever-growing percentage of the American population, see so clearly: That the invasion and occupation of Iraq drew resources, energy and attention away from efforts to combat the most serious threats facing the United States and the world?

Is he lying? Probably not. More likely than not, he is sincere, and that's what should really scare Americans.

It is entirely possible that President Bush really does not know that his approach to the war on terror has been a failure. Whether he scans the headlines, as Laura suggests, or really does avoid contact with news that has not been filtered by his staff, all indications are that this president is not a curious man. And his lack of curiosity is not just frightening. In times like these, it is dangerous.

Len on 07.19.04 @ 07:18 PM CST

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