We Need Action on Real Threats At Home

President George W. Bush and his communications gurus are rolling out their campaign to use the 9-11 anniversary to revive support for the Iraq War. Madison Avenue could be helpful here, with all the practice it has associating things, like soap and sex, that don’t have much to do with each other.

But if the goal is not to sell a policy but to craft one that will actually make us safer, taking a look at the three major foreign policy events of the last month would be more constructive.

First, the war. To its credit, the Pentagon has released a quarterly assessment of how things are going that this time is more facts than spin. It reports weekly attacks, and civilian casualties, at the highest levels since the score-keeping began in 2004. And the sectarian violence is spreading widely across the country.

Next we have Israel’s military incursion into Lebanon. While Bush has made some weak attempts to spin this as a victory for his “Global War on Terrorism,” virtually no one in the region is even trying to march to this tune.

What eventually stopped the carnage was the United States’ belated willingness to commit to diplomacy. Among the reasons that peace remains fragile is the limits of this commitment — the U.S. government’s refusal, for example, to allow its diplomats to talk to their counterparts in Syria and Iran. Another reason is that the system for assembling international peacekeeping forces remains ad hoc, slow and cumbersome.

Finally, there was the news that plans for a multipronged terrorist attack, designed to kill hundreds of airline passengers between the U.K. and the U.S., had been thwarted. While Bush was intoning his mantra about stopping them in Iraq so we won’t have to stop them here, it was international British-led police work, much closer to home, that was doing the job.

What’s the big picture here? That the strategy of using the military to stop them there so they won’t come here is the one that’s not working. That diplomacy, peacekeeping and international police work are the ones that are.

Bush would say that all of these security tools are part of his administration’s “comprehensive” approach to countering terrorism. But if you look at the numbers in his budget, this claim to comprehensiveness becomes unconvincing. With the help of a task force of security experts I have been doing this for the last three years.

The U.S. spends seven times as much on military strategy for keeping the country safe as on all other security strategies — including diplomacy, peacekeeping, foreign aid, nuclear nonproliferation and homeland security — put together. If you add in spending on the wars we are actually fighting (which the administration’s budgets carefully do not) the proportion becomes nine to one. In light of the recent track record, these priorities seem misplaced.

Congress has come back to Washington to try to finish up its work on the budget before jumping back in to campaigning. The prospects are not promising. It’s not looking likely that they’ll actually finish the budget before breaking for the midterm elections, or that they’ll manage to improve much on the proportions in Bush’s severely imbalanced security budget.

For example, sources including the 9-11 commission and the National Academy of Sciences have testified to the potential for massive civilian casualties from attacks on our unsecured chemical facilities and nuclear plants. While appropriating upward of $6 billion a month for Iraq, Congress is likely this year to approve a token $10 million — the administration’s request — for chemical plant security, and not a dime to secure nuclear spent fuel in hardened storage.

The people of this country need and deserve not partisan spinning, but action on the real threats close to home. If action from this Congress seems unlikely, at least, as Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman says, the campaign season gives us the chance for “an important discussion in America over what it takes to make America safe.”

Let’s start talking.

Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and Peace and Security Editor for Foreign Policy In Focus. With the Center for Defense Information and the Center for American Progress, she produces the annual “A Unified Security Budget for the United States.”