Earlier this week, the White House released a new “National Strategy for Homeland Security,” a long-overdue update of the Bush administration’s original homeland security blueprint produced in July 2002. It is important and even candid in a couple of respects, but it ends up resembling a homeland security how-to manual more than a strategy. It fails to present a vision of how we advance from our present condition—“not yet safe”—to more defensible ground.
In contrast to frequent presidential statements that label Iraq as the central front in the war on terror, the new strategy acknowledges that “the most serious and dangerous manifestation” of the terrorist threat remains Al Qaeda, which enjoys a safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Al Qaeda and Pakistan have been linked to plots against the West, including the attempt to bomb airliners using liquid explosives discovered in Britain last year. It suggests that Lebanese Hezbollah “may consider” attacking the United States homeland if we directly threaten the group or its sponsor, Iran, a judgment that should be clearly communicated to the vice president.
In contrast to the 2002 strategy, which was primarily focused on terrorism, the new version gives greater prominence to risks from hurricanes, earthquakes, man-made incidents, and pandemics. The Bush administration obviously learned some things from Hurricane Katrina and the SARS outbreak, although the document said nothing about confronting the challenge of climate change which is contributing to at least the severity of storms we face. It acknowledges the importance of public health infrastructure to deliver needed medical care in a crisis, but did not pledge greater federal resources to make the country better prepared.
The strategy identifies four primary homeland security goals: preventing terrorist attacks, protecting the American people and critical infrastructure, responding to crises, and strengthening the foundation of homeland security. This list does not include the 2002 goal to reduce America’s vulnerability to terrorism. While the Bush administration gives lip service to the need for national standards and best practices, it believes that private companies, which control 85 percent of critical infrastructure, will minimize risk and “be rewarded by the market.”
Experience suggests the opposite, that markets today place a greater premium on efficiency than security. There are areas, such as chemical security, where voluntary action has fallen short and government regulation is needed (along with appropriate incentives) to both improve physical security but also adapt operations and supply chains to make them less vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Interestingly, the strategy calls for changing the “calculus” of the terrorists so they “fear the consequences of their actions”—a dubious assertion since Al Qaeda sympathizers appear to be more than willing to engage in suicide attacks. It advocates discrediting terrorists, undermining their legitimacy, and creating a global environment that is “inhospitable” to violent extremists. This is good advice, all of which the Bush administration has violated in Iraq.
Finally, the Bush administration once again employs the politics of fear to promote actions of questionable strategic necessity and legality. The strategy’s opening sentence states that terrorists are intent on “destroying our way of life.” The document labels the use of court orders as an “unnecessary obstacle” for foreign intelligence gathering, even though court orders are not required for surveillance of foreign-to-foreign communications. The document literally lobbies for renewal of the Protect America Act of 2007, now under review by the Congress. This is yet another manifestation of the Bush administration’s unwarranted politicization of homeland security, which it has used as a wedge issue since 2002.
Al Qaeda, dangerous as it is, is not the Soviet Union, which did pose an existential threat to the United States and our way of life. It is simply not possible for 19 terrorists to destroy our way of life. However, by overreacting to a very real threat, we can do it to ourselves.