A “War” of Words

In this week’s Sunday Washington Post, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff responds to former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski’s March 25 piece Terrorized by ‘War on Terror.’

Brzezinski described how the “War on Terror” meme is undermining the United States’ national interests, “a classic self-inflicted wound”:

The “war on terror” has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration’s elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America’s psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us.

Though Brzezinski assigns more cynicism to the current administration in its approach to Iran than might be warranted, his insights are powerful:

The culture of fear is like a genie that has been let out of its bottle. It acquires a life of its own – and can become demoralizing. America today is not the self-confident and determined nation that responded to Pearl Harbor; nor is it the America that heard from its leader, at another moment of crisis, the powerful words “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; nor is it the calm America that waged the Cold War with quiet persistence despite the knowledge that a real war could be initiated abruptly within minutes and prompt the death of 100 million Americans within just a few hours. We are now divided, uncertain and potentially very susceptible to panic in the event of another terrorist act in the United States itself.

Susceptible to panic, indeed. With the groundwork for that panic laid by our own leaders.

Chertoff’s response is essentially a confession to Brzezinski’s insights. “Make No Mistake: This Is War” starts with the obligatory - and, frankly, tired - 9/11 reference:

As the rubble of the Twin Towers smoldered in 2001, no one could have imagined a day when America’s leaders would be criticized for being tough in protecting Americans from further acts of war.Now, less than six years later, that day has arrived.

His next step is a surprisingly tawdry attempt to link Brzezinski with the minuscule fringe of 9/11 conspiracy theorists.

Since Sept. 11, a conspiracy-minded fringe has claimed that American officials plotted the destruction. But when scholars such as Zbigniew Brzezinski accuse our leaders of falsely depicting or hyping a “war on terror” to promote a “culture of fear,” it’s clear that historical revisionism has gone mainstream.

Chertoff’s next shot is stunningly revealing.

The impulse to minimize the threat we face is eerily reminiscent of the way America’s leaders played down the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary fanaticism in the late 1970s. That naive approach ultimately foundered on the kidnapping of our diplomats in Tehran.

In translation: “Your caution with Iran, Brzezinski, brought down President Carter’s administration. We’re not making that mistake.”

Iran was a threat to the Carter administration, and Iran is a threat to the Bush administration. But is it a threat to our country? Secretary Chertoff appears focused on defending the current political regime, not on assuring the American people of their security.

There is much more to commend these two pieces. On the “war” question, Chertoff says: “Well, the short answer comes from our enemies. Osama bin Laden’s fatwa of Feb. 23, 1998, was a declaration of war … .”

Chertoff has apparently ceded control of the Department of Defense to bin Laden, who said in October 2004, “All that we have to do is to send two Mujahideen to the furthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses … .” It’s hard not to conclude that our relatively less powerful terrorist opponents are playing our political leaders like a fiddle.

Speaking of the Department of Defense, if there is an actual “War on Terror,” one would expect the Secretary of Defense to make that case.