Monday, May 12, 2003

Editorial: 5 9's and Fighting Terrorism

Reading Joe Klein's piece in the recent Time Magazine regarding the Democratic hopefuls for 2004 election I was quite disappointed with the position he advocated on national security issues. He seems to feel that the Democrats should simply appear as a somewhat weaker version of Bush, supporting the same basic positions, but not taking such an aggressive stance. According to Klein, they simply need to meet a certain threshold of credibility on security, which they can do by supporting the security measures advocated by the administration.

I disagree. Security will obviously be a major issue in this election. More so than it deserves to be, but such is life. Being a weak-sister to Bush's hawkish, paternalistic self-assured position will be a serious liability. There is no threshold which will magically level the playing field on this issue. The people in love with the aggressive Bush approach will still vote for him even if the Democrats act like a kinder, gentler version of the same thing. But there are many people across the political spectrum who want an alternative. Parroting Bush is not the only way to appear strong on security. Instead there is a very credible position that can be taken to promote security that points out weaknesses of the Bush administration. This comes in two parts,prevention and recovery.

To prevent terrorism, aggressive unilateralism surely can't be the only viable approach. Promoting the value of diplomacy and strengthening international relationships both to weaken the popular elements of anti-Americanism and to build partnerships for investigating and dismantling terrorist organizations would be a welcome alternative for the American people. The Bush administration has been broadly criticized on this account, even within their own party. To agree with the Bush administration on their anti-terror policy and raise this issue as an aside would be a mistake. This failure should be kept front and center in any discussion of national security. Fostering strong diplomatic relations, boosting our international image, and launching a massive multilateral operation to seek and destroy terrorist organizations will do far more to combat terrorism than any war in Iraq ever could.

On the home front, recovery needs to be the name of the game. When creating systems that are expected to be 99.999% effective, as is a major focus for us in telecommunications, recovery is as important as fault prevention, and in many ways more important. The closer one gets to the 5 9's standard the more difficult it is to predict where the next fault may occur, and thus more difficult to anticipate it and prevent it. Terrorism falls very much into this case. It would be sheer foolishness to believe we can secure this nation from every avenue of attack. It is simply not possible. We can take action to prevent the obvious attacks, but it will be trivial for terrorists to find unanticipated means to attack us. Herein lies another major weakness of the Bush administration.

With recovery, the challenges are known. We don't need to know the exact method that would be used for the attacks, but rather the broad areas where we're vulnerable. We can measure how long it takes for the authorities to respond to various types of crises. We can figure out how to mitigate the impact of attacks before they occur. We can plan it out, we can drill it, we can measure the improvements. With recovery, we can be guaranteed tangible results.

For the purpose of prevention, sweeping and invasive laws have been passed and many tens of billions of dollars committed. But to recovery? Lip service and hardly a penny of funding. Dictates are given to state and local governments demanding their preparedness to respond to attacks, even as federal funding to those government organizations is slashed to fuel questionable tax cuts, and even as those governments are facing their most severe budget crises in decades. The focus of the Bush administration on prevention within the US is both futile and damaging to civil rights and the freedom and liberty they claim to hold sacred. The funding and focus from the federal government would be better applied to responding to and containing terrorist attacks should they occur.

There is an opportunity for the issue of national security to be a strength for Democratic candidates, rather than a weakness for them to try to gloss over. On this issue, as on many others, they need to find a way to be leaders rather than a cheap knock-off. There is a huge window of opportunity for them to do so, but the writing is already on the wall that this will be just one more failure for the Democratic party and their inept strategists. They seem to be stuck in the same state of denial that led them to authorize the war on Iraq with the belief that doing so would make national security a non-issue for the mid-term elections. Instead they merely strengthened the administration's position on what was the key issue in those elections and what will again, unfortunately, be the key issue in 2004. And I will again be stuck with the feeling that as much as the administration disgusts me, the Democrats deserve to lose.

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