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It's Credibility, Stupid!

8 December 2001

Once again the Bush Administration has warned the American public about the possibility of terrorist attacks and has put law enforcement officials around the country on "the highest alert." This is the third time since September 11 that the Administration has issued such a warning.

As before, the Administration has given out no information about where, how, or when the terrorists might strike. Law enforcement officials complained during the first two alerts that the warnings were too vague to allow them to counter the threats. Of the current alert, all that Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has said is that "the sources are more credible and ... the decibel level is higher as they [the terrorists] talk about potential attacks."

I bet I'm not the only one who thinks that something's fishy. If government agencies - or their informants -- are listening to terrorists hatching plans, then they ought to have some hint as to their identities and intentions. Why won't they tell, at least other law enforcement agencies?

The Administration is obviously in a bind. If terrorists strike, it will be blamed for a lack of preparedness. If the terrorists don't strike, as we all fervently hope, Administration leaders will not necessarily be credited as saviors. Maybe there was no threat. If this happens too many times, people might perceive them as crying "wolf" too often, or as promoting a crisis without any evidence.

Credibility is everything. Is this an authentic alert or simply a scare tactic to advance the Administration's agenda? I assume the scare is real because it will likely deter travel and keep people out of malls and other public places. That's neither good for the economy nor good for the Administration's own long-term political fortunes. On the other hand, Administration officials were quoted, December 4, as saying that Ridge pushed for the alert not only because of "new information" but because the "public, politicians, and police were getting complacent." Ridge himself said, "The further removed we get from September 11, I think the natural tendency is to let down our guard." The Administration has much to gain from sustaining the crisis. It has an aggressive foreign policy to pursue as well as a repressive law enforcement agenda.

In foreign policy, the Administration speaks with a forked tongue. "There may be need to use military troops elsewhere .... we're keeping all our options on the table," President Bush has said. Two competing strategies are articulated: 1) cooperating with the United Nations in building an international coalition against terrorism, or 2) going it alone, unilaterally attacking any country that we, without any international corroboration or support, define as terrorist.

On the one hand Secretary of State Colin Powell is building an international coalition. So far he's been successful. Most recently he was in Turkey, a Muslim nation and NATO ally, offering assurances that the U.S. has no immediate plans to attack Iraq, Turkey's neighbor. The Turks are slated to play an important role in wooing other Muslim countries away from fundamentalist extremism, but they are very much opposed to an American attack on Iraq. Though such an attack would undermine Powell's internationalist efforts, he was unable to offer Turkey absolute assurance that a war against Iraq was not in the planning.

Other voices within the Bush Administration boldly advocate "taking it to Saddam." Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz has been calling for a war against Iraq ever since September 11, regardless of international opinion or evidence of Saddam Hussein's complicity in the terrorism. Publicly challenging Powell's internationalism, Bush refuses to silence Wolfowitz and break with his hawkish allies. Former Reagan advisor Richard Perle, who has influence within the Administration, has written that "if there is no Phase 2" in Bush's strategy, "there can be no victory in the war against terrorism." Phase 2, Perle continues, means unilaterally attacking Iraq or, if not Iraq, "Syria or Iran or Sudan or Yemen or Somalia or North Korea or Lebanon or the Palestinian Authority." This is quite an agenda, guaranteed to turn the entire Muslim world against us, as well as most if not all of our Western allies.

The anti-Iraq lobby accuses Saddam Hussein of making biological weapons, but law enforcement and scientific authorities insist that the anthrax in the postal system comes from American sources. As to Iraq's weapons capability, Scott Ritter, the UN's chief weapons inspector in Iraq who quit to protest President Clinton's lack of resolve on this issue, told Fox News that while Saddam remains "a little bit of a threat" diplomatically and politically, he represents no threat to the United States "in terms of real national security."

Given what we know against what we've been told by the war hawks in the Administration, can we trust Bush to honestly justify extending the war to Iraq or other foreign countries? Is the current "high alert" indicative of an actual threat, or is it a means of rousing the American people to support an extended war? I don't know, but the Vietnam War's famous "Credibility Gap" is looming on the horizon.

The U.S. escalation in Vietnam was based on attacks by North Vietnamese patrol boats on American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. It's now known that President Lyndon Johnson knew that the "Tonkin Incident" was a lie, that the attacks never happened. Cal Thomas - perhaps the most conservative columnist in America - recently reviewed the Tonkin Incident in his syndicated column. He concluded that "George McGovern was right," as were the other politicians and activists who "opposed the war."

It's credibility, stupid! It was lack of credibility that brought down the Johnson Administration and helped undermine popular support for the Vietnam War. The war against terrorism is inherently easy to support. But President Bush has to be honest with the American people. If the Administration is perceived as using the war as a cover to pursue its partisan and ideological agenda, a showdown at Credibility Gap is just around the corn er.

Marty Jezer.
(c) Marty Jezer.

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