Politics & Policy

Make Up Your Mind

The Left's national-security schizophrenia.

It is too late in the day to rehearse why anyone not wearing a tinfoil hat to guard against invasive gamma rays should avoid squandering valuable time on anything written by Seymour Hersh. Been there, done that (see here)–as have NR’s John J. Miller and, only recently, Michael Ledeen and Max Boot.

There is, however, something interesting about the latest glimpse into the Pulitzer-laureate’s alternative universe. Yes, of course it’s yet another “Dude, the Neocons Are Stealing My Country” rant (actually called “The Coming Wars–What the Pentagon Can Now Do in Secret”). And yes, notwithstanding apparent errors and internal inconsistencies, it still somehow managed to get past those exacting fact-checkers at The New Yorker–the ones editor David Remnick recently hyped (in a forward to Hersh’s last book) as the justification for continuing to give Hersh license to litter the magazine’s pages with unaccountable, unverifiable innuendo. But if we leave Hersh’s details aside, there is much to be gleaned from his choice of subject matter.

What has Hersh atwitter this time is that the Bush administration may actually be making contingency plans for military operations against Iran. We can and should assume that this is true–though not because Hersh is reporting it. It should be true because it would be national suicide if it weren’t. So the questions are (a) why is this a story at all, and (b) is the Left ever going to get adult about national security? In fact, on the latter, we might even be grateful if they could crank it up to adolescent.

If one were a cynic (not me, of course), one might conclude that the Left–or at least that faction of it now running the asylum–is serious about only one thing: hardcore politics. It looks at each new scenario as it arises, detached from any sense of history or priority, and asks not “How does this affect the national security of the United States?” but rather “How do we score some points here to get back in the game?”

The Kerry campaign exhibited this phenomenon in small but telling compass: Having supported the Iraq war when the wind was blowing that way, vote against financing it when things get rough. Having gutted intelligence funding to feed at the social-welfare trough of a naïve “peace dividend,” become indignant about unconnected dots when an intelligence calamity occurs during a Republican administration. Having screamed about the patent virtues of multilateral diplomacy when the president held firm on Iraq, decry the patent defects of multilateral diplomacy when the president tries it in North Korea. And so on.

The conventional post-election wisdom is that Senator Kerry was a weak candidate, but more and more it’s apparent that the message is a bigger problem than the messenger. When it comes to the public welfare, the Left is not serious. Going berserk over the possibility that the officials charged with protecting us may be thinking about ways to address Iran, our nation’s top security threat, is testament to the fact that Kerry may be gone but the problem isn’t.

Having a contingency plan does not mean we anticipate invading tomorrow. It means, ironically enough, having a “plan” in the event a “contingency” occurs. One elementary task of intelligence is to identify contingencies–i.e., things that are within the realm of the conceivable, and for which we need countermeasures at the ready–so that we can stop them from happening, make them less likely to happen, and react effectively if they do happen.

The 9/11 Commission comes to mind. The Left liked it well enough when some of its Democratic members were portraying Bush administration officials as asleep at the wheel in the months before the attacks, and when its proposals for streamlining obstacles to intelligence-sharing were to create new layers of government bureaucracy. Nonetheless, among its major findings were multiple failures of creative planning–which stretched back for years. Most pertinent for present purposes is its account of the days just after the suicide hijackings:

President Bush recalled that he quickly realized that the administration would have to invade Afghanistan with ground troops. But the early briefings to the President and Secretary Rumsfeld on military options were disappointing. Tommy Franks, the commanding general of Central Command (CENTCOM), told us that the President was dissatisfied. The U.S. military, Franks said, did not have an off-the-shelf plan to eliminate the al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan. (Final Report, p. 332)

Is that the flat-footed state of affairs we want for Iran? Enemies who believe we are either unwilling or unable to respond effectively are much more likely to attack us.

Prior to 9/11, Iran’s wholly owned subsidiary, Hezbollah, had killed more Americans than any other terrorist organization on the planet. The 1983 attack on the marine barracks in Lebanon and the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia (which collectively killed 260 American military personnel) tell only a small part of the story. For years, Hezbollah has provided al Qaeda with training. Iran, meantime, has given safe harbor to high-ranking al Qaeda members (under the charade of house arrest)–effectively making them untouchable short of an invasion. Iran has likely backed Muqtadar al-Sadr’s destabilizing Mahdi Army in Iraq, and likely has a cooperative relationship with Iraq terror “emir” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is working energetically behind the scenes to kill American forces and cause the failure of our mission. It is going nuclear, if it hasn’t gone already. And its saber-rattling about attacking Israel and American interests has become steadily more provocative. The authentic scandal here would be if we weren’t making some kind of plan.

Which, naturally, is the next point. Let’s say we did not make any contingency plans and Iran, tomorrow, did precisely what it has been threatening to do. What would we be hearing from Sy Hersh and his fellow-travelers? Exactly what we heard from all these folks when they woke up on September 12, 2001, and suddenly decided there was some political hay to be made in taking on the mantel of stalwart security hawks: “Where was the preparation? Since we knew Iran was dangerous, why weren’t its threats taken more seriously? Why wasn’t everyone at ‘battle stations’ like we were back in those super-competent days of the Y2K crisis?” (By the way, if you’re trying to pinpoint those days, they occurred roughly a year after these hawks did nothing about the embassy bombings and a year before they did nothing about the Cole bombing.)

It’s a dangerous world out there. Entirely independent of Iran, China gazes longingly at Taiwan; North Korea, run by a crazy person, is nuclear power; the simmering India-Pakistan conflict could heat up anew; militant Islam’s genocide policy in Sudan could become so unsightly as (finally) to demand a global response; Putin’s latent revanchism could send further tremors through vulnerable former Soviet satellites; terrorism in Iraq could spike again even after the historic elections; the Europeans could have another Madrid; or we could be directly targeted for another domestic attack. And those are only some of the known unknowns.

We can hope nothing bad happens. Perhaps some of us can delude ourselves, even as palpable dangers beckon, that we have reached an epoch, heretofore unknown in the history of time, when bad things that profoundly affect us no longer happen. But for the rest of us, we need a plan. We need lots of plans–at least one for every contingency, along with a humble hope that, for all the billions spent on sustaining and refurbishing the intelligence community, someone better informed than we are is spotting other contingencies and making other plans.

The Left and its allied media (like Hersh, who continues, with lots of help, to pose as an objective reporter) are playing a dangerous game here. If the actual thinking-through of national security becomes a political liability, the more timorous among the political class will stop doing it, or at least do a lot less of it. The “thinking outside the box” that the Commission concluded was sorely lacking will entirely disappear. Maybe the Left then scores some points in the public-relations environment it is laboring to design, but we’ll all be a lot less safe.

That’s why it shouldn’t take another 3,000 dead people for us to say: “The Pentagon damn well better be thinking about Iran!”

Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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