Cheney and Chechnya

September 09, 2004

VICE PRESIDENT Dick Cheney was not arguing on Tuesday that a vote for John Kerry was a vote for terrorism, though if anyone came away with that impression after his remarks in Des Moines, Iowa, he probably wasn't too distraught about it. What he was saying was that if the "wrong" man is elected in November, and if there comes another big terrorist attack on America, the new Democratic administration won't know what to do, will try to pretend that it's dealing with an essentially criminal act, and won't realize that the United States is at war.

The current administration, by implication, would know precisely what to do: hit back with everything it has, hard.

Here's why that's not reassuring:

Even with 135,000 American troops tied down in Iraq, the United States can still wield terrifyingly lethal firepower wherever it chooses to do so - yet to unleash all that focused violence out of anger, and without regard to guilt, or consequences, would make America in the long run more vulnerable, not less, to violent retaliation. The Bush administration has shown an unhealthy lack of regard for evidence, resisting, for instance, the creation and work of the 9/11 commission, and marshaling what turned out to be phony intelligence to justify a war in Iraq. Under pressure, it gave in on the 9/11 investigation, but it charged blindly into Baghdad and into the bloody and intractable mess that is Iraq today.

Jihadists and Baathists and Islamists and opportunists are waging war on the United States there, with more than 1,000 Americans dead and more than 6,500 wounded. Experience suggests that the violent anger and bitterness stirred up by the American occupation of Iraq will inevitably, at some point, spill beyond the borders of that country. The war seems to have been launched, in part, as a means of redeeming American pride after the disaster of 2001 - as flimsily connected as Saddam Hussein may have been to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden - but today the agony of Iraq serves as an ideal recruiting agent for those who wish to wage a campaign of terror against the United States. The continuing bloodshed in Iraq does not and will not make America safer.

What if the United States does suffer another major terrorist attack? Mr. Cheney worries that a Kerry administration would try to "solve" the crime. We worry that a second Bush administration would fasten on a culprit, shoot first and ask questions later - or, more likely, shoot first and then refuse to acknowledge that there are any questions. The debacle in Iraq offers a clear precedent. The administration's disdain for evidence - for facts, for intelligence - calls to mind nothing so much as the Russian experience. And in that lies an important lesson.

When Moscow apartment houses were bombed in 1999, the rubble was bulldozed within 24 hours. Following the seizure of a Moscow theater in 2002, no attempt was made to determine how it happened. After the horrifying end to the hostage-taking in Beslan last week, Russian security forces abandoned the school site within hours. In each case, as far as the Kremlin was concerned, Chechens were to blame, and - more significantly - it didn't matter which Chechens. Russia has spent a decade indiscriminately pulverizing Chechnya, without regard to the individual guilt of those bearing the brunt of the violence. The result has been deep anger and bitterness, and rather than winding down, the bloodletting just continues. This is the point: War without evidence, precisely because it is unjust, becomes war without end.

In Chechnya, Russia botched an initial peace settlement, in 1996, and that failure left thousands of well-armed but unemployed men nursing their resentments and available for kidnappings and ambushes. In Iraq, the United States has done a pretty fair job botching the reconstruction following the "end" of hostilities, and there, too, thousands of well-armed men are ready and willing to make trouble. The U.S. military concedes that it has lost control of several major cities, which is a deeply ominous development. In both Moscow and Washington, apologists for war keep trying to argue that the corner has been turned, all the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. President Bush says that he knows the war in Iraq was the right course to pursue. If he paused to consider the facts, he might think differently.

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