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How to Lose a War
27 October 2001
Welcome back to Sept 10.
The "America Strikes Back" optimism that surged after Sept. 11 has now been stricken by the multitude of ways we're losing the war at home. The F.B.I. has proved more effective in waging turf battles against Rudy Giuliani than waging war on terrorism. Of the more than 900 suspects arrested, exactly zero have been criminally charged in the World Trade Center attack (though one has died of natural causes, we're told, in a New Jersey jail cell). The Bush team didn't fully recognize that a second attack on America had begun until more than a week after the first casualty. The most highly trumpeted breakthrough in the hunt for anthrax terrorists — Tom Ridge's announcement that "the site where the letters were mailed" had been found in New Jersey — proved a dead end. And now the president is posing with elementary-school children again.
Given that this is the administration that was touted as being run with C.E.O. clockwork, perhaps it should be added to the growing list of Things That Have Changed Forever since Sept. 11. But let's not be so hasty. Not everything changes that fast — least of all Washington. The White House's home-front failures are not sudden, unpredictable products of wartime confusion but direct products of an ethos that has been in place since Jan. 20.
This is an administration that will let its special interests — particularly its high-rolling campaign contributors and its noisiest theocrats of the right — have veto power over public safety, public health and economic prudence in war, it turns out, no less than in peacetime. When anthrax struck, the administration's first impulse was not to secure as much Cipro as speedily as possible to protect Americans, but to protect the right of pharmaceutical companies to profiteer. The White House's faith in tax cuts as a panacea for all national ills has led to such absurdities as this week's House "stimulus" package showering $254 million on Enron, the reeling Houston energy company (now under S.E.C. investigation) that has served as a Bush campaign cash machine.
Airport security, which has been enhanced by at best cosmetic tweaks since Sept. 11, is also held hostage by campaign cash: As Salon has reported, ServiceMaster, a supplier of the low-wage employees who ineptly man the gates, is another G.O.P. donor. Not that Republicans stand alone in putting fat cats first. In a display of bipartisanship, Democrats — lobbied by Linda Hall Daschle, the Senate majority leader's wife — joined the administration in handing the airlines a $15 billion bailout that enforces no reduction in the salaries of the industry's C.E.O.'s even as they lay off tens of thousands of their employees.
To see how the religious right has exerted its own distortions on homeland security, you also have to consider an administration pattern that goes back to its creation — and one that explains the recent trials of poor Tom Ridge.
Mr. Ridge is by all accounts a capable leader — a successful governor of a large state (Pennsylvania) who won the Bronze Star for heroism in Vietnam. A close friend of George W. Bush, he should have been in the administration from the get-go, and was widely rumored to be a candidate for various jobs, including the vice presidency. But after being pilloried by the right because he supports abortion rights, he got zilch. Instead of Mr. Ridge, the administration signed on the pro-life John Ashcroft and Tommy Thompson — who have brought us where we are today.
The farcical failures of these two cabinet secretaries are not merely those of public relations — though Mr. Thompson often comes across as a Chamber of Commerce glad-hander who doesn't know his pants are on fire, and Mr. Ashcroft often shakes as if he's not just seen great Caesar's ghost but perhaps John Mitchell's as well. Both have a history of letting politics override public policy that dates to the start of the administration. They've seen no reason to reverse their partisan priorities even at a time when the patriotic duty of effectively fighting terror should be their No. 1 concern. Pre-Sept. 11, Mr. Thompson, in defiance of science, heartily lent his credibility to the Bush administration's stem cell "compromise" by going along with its overstatement of the viability and diversity of the stem cell lines it would deliver to researchers. Post-Sept. 11, he destroyed his credibility by understating the severity of the anthrax threat, also in defiance of science.
Now he maintains that the $1.5 billion the administration is requesting to plug the many holes in our public health system — almost all of it earmarked for stockpiling pharmaceuticals, not shoring up local hospitals — is adequate for fighting bioterrorism. This, too, is in defiance of all expert estimates, including that of the one physician in the Senate, the Republican Bill Frist.
It should also be on Mr. Thompson's conscience that for the first two weeks of the anthrax crisis he kept the federal government's house physician — David Satcher, the surgeon general and a much-needed honest broker of public health — locked away, presumably because Dr. Satcher, a Clinton appointee, became persona non grata in the Bush administration for issuing a June report on teenage sexuality that angered the religious right. Only after Mr. Ridge arrived on the scene was the surgeon general liberated from the gulag.
As for Mr. Ashcroft, he has gone so far as to turn away firsthand information about domestic terrorism for political reasons. Planned Parenthood, which has been on the front lines of anthrax scares for years and has by grim necessity marshaled the medical and security expertise to combat them, has sought a meeting with the attorney general since he took office but has never been granted one. This was true not only before Sept. 11 but, says Ann Glazier, Planned Parenthood's director of security, remains true — even though her organization, long targeted by such home-grown Talibans as the Army of God, has a decade's worth of leads on "the convergence of international and domestic terrorism."
Ms. Glazier found the sight of Mr. Ashcroft and other federal Keystone Kops offering a $1 million reward for anthrax terrorists a laughable indication of how little grasp they have of the enemy. "Religious extremists don't respond to money," she points out. Such is the state of the F.B.I., she adds, that one agent told a clinic to hold onto a suspect letter for a couple of days "because we have so many here we're afraid we're going to lose it" (perhaps among the Timothy McVeigh documents).
If either the attorney general or the secretary of health and human services inspired anything like the confidence that, say, Mayor Giuliani does, there wouldn't have been a need to draft Mr. Ridge. Even so, he's mainly a P.R. gimmick — a man who should have been in the administration in the first place reduced to serving as a fig leaf for lightweights. As director of homeland security, he's allegedly charged with supervising nearly 50 government agencies — so far with roughly a dozen staff members. When asked to define Mr. Ridge's responsibilities, Ari Fleischer said on Wednesday that it was "a very busy coordination job," but so far Mr. Ridge is mainly sowing still more confusion.
The one specific duty that he has claimed — in an interview with Tom Brokaw — was that he'd be the one "making the phone call" to the president to shoot down any commercial airliner turned into a flying bomb by hijackers. That presumably comes as news to Donald Rumsfeld, who made no provision for any homeland security czar in the Air Force chain of command he publicly codified days after Mr. Ridge's appointment.
Since the administration tightly metes out the news from Afghanistan, we can only hope that the war there is being executed more effectively than the war here — even as Mr. Rumsfeld and his generals now tell us that the Taliban, once expected to implode in days, are proving Viet Cong-like in their intractability. The Wall Street Journal also reported this week that "instead of a thankful Afghan population, popular support for the Taliban appears to be solidifying and anger with the U.S. growing." Maybe we're losing that battle for Afghan hearts and minds in part because the Bush State Department appointee in charge of the propaganda effort is a C.E.O. (from Madison Avenue) chosen not for her expertise in policy or politics but for her salesmanship on behalf of domestic products like Head & Shoulders shampoo. If we can't effectively fight anthrax, I guess it's reassuring to know we can always win the war on dandruff.