The fifth anniversary of 9/11 looms before us, and it's hard to say which artifact is gloomier: the awful memory of the attack itself (especially to those of us who witnessed the towers crumbling) or the spectacle of our leaders wrapping themselves in its legacy as if it were some tattered shroud that sanctifies their own catastrophic mistakes and demonizes all their critics.
Already, the sermons are beginning. Yesterday, speaking before the officers of U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb., Vice President Dick Cheney touted the war in Iraq and denounced the "self-defeating pessimists" who oppose it. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did much the same at the American Legion's convention in Salt Lake City. Tomorrow, President Bush will give the first of several speeches making the case for staying the course—his third such series since he declared victory three and a quarter years ago onboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.
Cheney's speech passed by almost completely unnoticed, perhaps because it was just too delusional for comment. (Of the war in Iraq: "We wage this fight with good allies at our side." Of present-day Iraq and Afghanistan: "Fifty million people are awakening to a future of hope and freedom." Would that both statements were so.)
The most-publicized portions of Rumsfeld's speech were in the same vein as Cheney's: Today's terrorists pose the same threat as yesteryear's Nazis; critics of the war in Iraq are like the appeasers before World War II; the real problem is that "the media" spreads "lies" and "myths" about how the war is going.
But then Rumsfeld posed four questions. "These are central questions of our time, and we must face them," he said. So, let's face them.
1. "With the growing lethality and availability of weapons, can we truly afford to believe that somehow vicious extremists can be appeased?"
Well, it depends which "vicious extremists" he's talking about. If he's talking about the leaders of al-Qaida, no, probably not. But, even here, it's a mistake to presume that there are only two choices—appeasement or war. Sometimes, war, at least war fought in a certain style, does as much harm as good.
Rumsfeld should ponder another set of questions that he posed to a handful of top advisers back in October 2003, in a private memo (which was leaked shortly afterward to USA Today):
Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?
Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop the terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists' costs of millions.
How do we stop those who are financing the radical madrassa schools? Is our current situation such that "the harder we work, the behinder we get"? ... Should we create a private foundation to entice radical madrassas to a more moderate course?
All excellent questions. At the time, I called the memo "pathetic" because Rumsfeld had taken so long to formulate its points. In retrospect, I was too cruel. What's really pathetic is that nearly three years have since passed and the Bush administration still hasn't answered his questions. And what's truly cynical is that Rumsfeld can deliver such a simpleminded speech—charging the critics of the war in Iraq with historical ignorance and "moral confusion"—when he knows the truth is more complicated.