Commentary

Poised for War but Unprepared for Terrorism

By Charles V. Peña
November 17, 2002
President Bush says that he is taking the most recent audiotape by Osama bin Laden very seriously and acknowledges that those responsible for the tape — presumably bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorists — have “put the world on notice yet again that we’re at war.” At the same time, the president continues to warn Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein that he has zero tolerance for any further lies and deception, and that if Iraq does not comply with U.N. weapons inspections, the United States will invade Iraq to disarm it.

But if it’s the al Qaeda terrorist network that has declared war on the United States, how is the prospect of going to war against Iraq going to defend against and help defeat al Qaeda? Worse yet, one implication of the bin Laden audiotape is that a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq could be the catalyst for future terrorist attacks. As the tape says, “Just like you kill, you will be killed. And just like you bombarded, you will be bombarded. Be prepared to receive the glad tidings of what will be bad for you.”

The audiotape seems to confirm two different assessments by CIA Director George Tenet. In October, he warned that despite the U.S. military success in Afghanistan, al Qaeda was regrouping and that “you must make the assumption that al Qaeda is in an execution phase and intends to strike us here and overseas.” And, in early November, Tenet said if provoked by a U.S.-led attack, Iraq might take “the extreme step of assisting Islamic terrorists in conducting a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack against the United States.”

But the administration — and most members of Congress — has largely ignored Tenet’s warnings. And it seems to be unable to grasp the obvious with the most recent bin Laden audiotape.

The enemy at the gates is al Qaeda, not Iraq. Disarming Hussein or engaging in regime change will hardly prevent al Qaeda from re-grouping and attacking the United States again. One senior military officer commented about the Pentagon’s deliberations over an invasion of Iraq: “Can you imagine how it would look if we go to war against Iraq and there’s another terrorist attack in the United States at the same time? People will wonder what we’re doing.”

And if the prospect of more terrorist attacks against the United States isn’t bad enough, the reality is that the country is dangerously unprepared to deal with terrorist attacks. Administration and congressional officials, as well as outside experts, have all expressed growing concerns that the FBI cannot detect or thwart terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. According to Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, “They [the FBI] still don’t know where the terrorists are, how many are here, what their intentions are, what kind of support network they have.” Furthermore, the FBI doesn’t have “a thoughtful plan or very much information to predicate a plan on.”

Even the White House’s Office of Homeland Security admits that the country is not prepared. According to Director Tom Ridge, the United States would be “far, far better prepared tomorrow” but “I’m not going to tell you that we would be prepared to the level that both the president and the country desires.” And how long does Ridge think it will take for the country to be prepared? “It’s going to take us several years.”

It’s not likely that al Qaeda will wait that long, especially if the United States chooses to attack Iraq within the next several months.

Conventional political wisdom is that Republicans are better than Democrats when it comes to defense and national security. The election results giving the GOP control of Congress seem to reflect that thinking. Such thinking could be dead wrong.

The president is currently basking in his legislative victory to create a new Department of Homeland Security after criticizing some congressional Democrats as “not interested in the security of the American people.” Yet the administration’s rush to engage in regime change in Iraq knowingly puts the public at grave and unnecessary risk to terrorism.

One thing should not be forgotten: prior to September 11, much of the national security focus of the Bush administration was on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to so-called rogue states (now the axis of evil) and the missile defense thought to be needed to combat that potential threat. America was blindsided by the al Qaeda terrorist threat. If we focus once again on potential threats that have nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and ignore the real threat at our doorstep, we do so at our peril.

Charles V. Peña is senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.