Monday, June 11, 2007

Is the United States Safer?

Published: June 10, 2007


A couple of weeks before the 9/11 attack on the United States, I was traveling with my family from New York to Minneapolis. My daughter, then aged 3, had not been well. As we waited at La Guardia Airport, her face grew blotchy with a mounting fever and I decided we would have to cancel the trip.

"We won't be boarding, so please take our bags off the plane," I told the agent from Northwest Airlines. She said that might not be possible. I insisted that, for security reasons if nothing else, Northwest could not take our luggage without us. She shrugged. Our suitcases disappeared to Minnesota.

What a simple plot, I thought. Terrorist checks in with "wife" and "children." Kid gets sick. Bags go anyway - and boom!

I soon discovered even this ruse was superfluous. All you had to do, back before Sept. 11, 2001, was learn to fly (but not to land) and buy box-cutters.

This incident came back to me as I pondered the outcry provoked among other Democratic presidential candidates by Senator Hillary Clinton's lapidary comment: "I believe we are safer than we were."

This statement, in a recent televised debate, had the merit of being true. The United States is safer than when bags flew without passengers, intelligence services were deaf to each other and airport security a joke. It is a less pleasant place - more fearful, distrustful and vengeful - but it is more secure.

That is something you know, whatever the numbers, just as you know inflation is rising, whatever the statistics say. The United States has escaped attack these past six years because it is harder to hit, not because the bomb-us-back-to-the-Caliphate boys took a time-out.

But Clinton broke a rule among many Democrats: that no merit be accorded to any aspect of Bush administration policy. The response from her Democratic rivals, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and former Senator John Edwards, was ferocious.

Obama, scholarly as ever, put out a memorandum titled "America is not safer since 9/11." Edwards declared: "Today we know two unequivocal truths about the results of Bush's approach - there are more terrorists, and we have fewer allies."

In the arsenal of both candidates were last year's National Intelligence Estimate, which asserted that the terrorist threat to the United States has grown as Iraq-spurred Islamic radicalism spread, and a State Department report saying deaths from terrorist attacks rose 40 percent in 2006, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Clinton was not endorsing the Bush administration's foreign policy, and she stated that "We are not yet safe enough." Score one for Hillary giving it to the American people straight.

The only way the Democrats are going to lose an election that is theirs to win is by believing undiluted Bush-bashing alone will deliver the White House. Americans, thinking past Bush, want their truths unvarnished.

In that spirit, here is a question. If the United States is safer, what about Americans, millions of whom live overseas? Philip Gordon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, told me he changed the first sentence of his new book, "Winning the Right War," after agonizing over this issue.

The sentence initially read: "Six years after the start of the 'war on terror,' the United States is less safe, our enemies are stronger and more numerous, and the war's key battleground - the Middle East - is dangerously unstable."

But he ended up substituting "Americans are less safe" for the United States. Gordon explained: "I was torn. Bush foreign policy has driven too many into the camp of those sympathetic to terrorists and the threat is greater. But the homeland is better protected."

Battling terrorism is murky work. Gordon's dilemma was real. I am not convinced that, outside Iraq and Afghanistan, where wars are being fought, Americans are less safe than in the days of the Khobar Tower bombing, the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole bombing and 9/11 itself.

To state the obvious, radicalized Muslims did all this before Bush invaded two Islamic countries and so "radicalized" Muslims.

When I look at my daughter Adele today, I sometimes think of that moment before 9/11, in the world gone by that we did not value enough. In case you are wondering, she spent several days in the hospital in critical condition, victim, it transpired, of a spider bite.

She has emerged toughened, more resilient. Her birthday, as it happens, is Sept. 11.