War on terrorism requires Americans to face unpleasant facts

September 06, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - Just suspend disbelief for a little while.

If you can do that - forget those annoying facts, ignore the complexities of world affairs and disregard chaos theory - you can believe that President Bush will win the war on terror. You can believe.

But it requires some selective amnesia.

You have to forget that Osama bin Laden - "We'll smoke him out of his cave," Mr. Bush declared three years ago - is still at large and planning murderous attacks. You have to ignore the aggressive insurgency in Iraq, ordinary Iraqis' resentment of the U.S. occupation and the failure to turn up weapons of mass destruction or evidence of a significant relationship between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden. You have to forget that there were more substantive terrorist attacks worldwide last year than the year before.

It's a lot of work to believe in the president's claim that he has made the nation safer, but I can certainly understand the appeal. I wish I could believe it.

In his acceptance speech Thursday night, Mr. Bush once again claimed the mantle of courageous commander in chief: "We are staying on the offensive, striking terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home."

That is so much more comforting than the awful truth: Terrorists are likely to strike on U.S. soil again, as the president has admitted. Indeed, the United States and its Western allies will be fighting terrorists for at least the next two generations. If there is ever a victory - if we are able to avoid the specter of a mass murderer raising his fist in front of a big banner that says, "Fission Accomplished" - the victory will come when Mr. Bush has faded to Chester A. Arthur status on the junk pile of forgettable presidents.

For just an instant last week, the president seemed willing to speak frankly to the American people about the challenges ahead. Last Monday, NBC's Matt Lauer asked Mr. Bush, "Do you really think we can win" the war on terror?

"I don't think you can win it," he said, "but I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world." For a man who "doesn't do nuance," Mr. Bush showed a clearheaded understanding of certain complexities. But he quickly backtracked, as John Kerry disingenuously rushed to condemn his response. Mr. Kerry, clearly, does not intend to level with the American people any more than Mr. Bush does.

Here is what both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush ought to be saying: The security Americans have long known on these shores is gone - at least for my lifetime. (I can only hope that future generations will regain it.) Americans will have to get used to living more like Israelis, who have learned to cope with a frequency of suicide bombings that is grotesquely routine.

And that may not be the worst of it. The worst would be an attack by a terrorist armed with a suitcase-sized nuclear bomb. That sort of attack would kill hundreds of thousands and render a metropolitan area uninhabitable for years.

Fighting against that kind of terrorism would require a radically different approach from the president's; his invasion of Iraq has only made things worse. Mr. Kerry's emphasis on multilateralism makes more sense. But even he has failed to be honest about the costs - financial and otherwise - of a smarter war.

For example, a homeland security that goes beyond the full use of the color chart would require billions of dollars to secure ports, hire more border guards and equip first-responders. How would we pay for it?

With so many troops bogged down in Iraq, how will we face other threats without a draft?

Apparently, neither candidate thinks enough of his countrymen to believe we're up to facing hard truths. Once upon a time, national leaders had a higher opinion of us.

President John F. Kennedy once said: "We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people."

Where is the presidential candidate who will speak to that America?

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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