Commentary

Responding to the Attack on America

America has been attacked. Those of us who counseled military restraint and non-intervention when our vital interests were not at stake now face the situation that we always said would require military retaliation: an attack on the people and property of the United States. Now, our government has a job to do: not to sponsor midnight basketball or regulate our workplaces but to provide for the common defense and protect our lives and property.

As President Bush said, this is a new kind of war and it will require new tactics for waging war. Here’s an outline of what we should be doing now:

1. Go after Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The air strikes are a good beginning, but we must insist that Afghanistan hand Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants over. Failing that, we must go into Afghanistan to find them. It won’t be an easy task; the Soviet Union learned that in a nightmare decade. But this is the sort of mission that our Special Forces train for. They’ll find bin Laden.

Also, the Taliban rulers have made clear that they are sponsors of bin Laden and his wave of terrorism. So, one of our goals must be the removal of the Taliban from power. Our war is not with the people of Afghanistan — it is with the government of that poor country. When the Taliban is removed, we hope that a democratic government will be established. But our military objective must make clear that states that sponsor terrorist attacks on the American people will not endure.

2. Improve civil defense. Administration officials tell us that “there is a clear, present danger” of worse attacks than we have experienced, a point that government reports have made over the past decade. Yet the federal government has done little to educate Americans about how to respond to nuclear, biological, or chemical attacks, or to stockpile antidotes and anti-viruses. It’s time to do so.

3. Round up Al Qaeda operatives in the United States. Our leaders are right to warn us against hate crimes directed at Muslims and at people who “look like Arabs.” We must not forget the kind of country we are. But when we find people living in this country who are connected with a terror network, we need to move forcefully.

Right now we’re banning soup ladles in airport restaurants while we leave Al Qaeda cells operating “under surveillance.” If we know of non-citizens involved with terrorists, we should round them up. If the evidence isn’t there to arrest them for a crime, we can still deport them — not because they’ re Arabs but because the FBI has identified them as agents of a terror network. Non-citizens don’t have the same rights as citizens. They are in the United States at our sufferance. Immigration is good for the country, always has been, but we’re not obligated to provide a warm welcome for sleeper agents until their call to action comes through. Since the FBI failed to anticipate the September 11 attacks by 19 different agents, we can assume that its list of people to be watched is not over-broad.

4. Strengthen the economy. One of our strongest assets is the strength of the American economy. We can out-produce any adversary. But our economy, already weakening over the past year, took a sharp hit on September 11. We need to give it a lift. The way to encourage economic activity is not to pump money into the economy — money that is either taxed away from those who produced it or created out of thin air in the form of inflation — but to remove the impediments to productive activity. Further progress on free trade would mean more international trade, creating more efficiency for business and lower prices for consumers. Tax cuts would make work and investment more appealing. Bush’s plan to allow workers to invest some of their Social Security taxes in real assets won’t help the economy in the next quarter, but it would increase investment and real economic activity over the long term — and that’s the relevant period for this war.

5. Build a new bomber. In conflicts such as the one we’re entering, the United States may find air bases close to the fighting unavailable or vulnerable to enemy attack — especially by ballistic missiles. Yet the U.S. Air Force is investing billions of dollars in two new types of tactical fighter aircraft that require access to such bases. In contrast, the Air Force will not begin research and development on a new long-range bomber until 2013 and will not begin producing the aircraft until 2034. Heavy bombers can carry heavier payloads over much longer ranges than can fighters and can operate from less-vulnerable bases in theaters that are farther away from the fighting or even from bases in the United States. No matter what type of foreign policy the United States adopts in the future, it will need the ability to project power abroad. It’s time to start developing a new bomber.

6. Spend our defense dollars wisely. Advocates of increased military spending have seized on the atrocities of September 11 as an excuse to spend “hundreds of billions more” on the military. But we don’t need another million men, or more tanks and cruise missiles, to fight this war. Instead of throwing money at the problem, we should take a close look at the Pentagon budget: eliminate what we don’t need and reallocate resources to real needs like civil defense, missile defense and human intelligence. A good place to start is to give the Pentagon authority to close obsolete military bases. We could also reallocate money from some of our technical intelligence efforts (such as spy satellites), many of which are better suited for Cold War espionage activities, to the harder task of human intelligence — that is, our ability to penetrate and gather information on terrorist organizations.

7. Reorient drug war resources to the war on terrorism. Some officials have compared the new war on terrorism with the war on drugs. That’s a depressing thought: We’ve been fighting the drug war for 87 years, and drug use is as high as ever. A better tack is to take some of the $40 billion we spend annually on the futile drug war and reallocate it to the war on terrorism. Use the Drug Enforcement Administration’s agents to search for pipe bombs, not marijuana pipes.

Libertarians usually enter public debates to call for restrictions on government activity. In the wake of September 11, we have all been reminded of the real purpose of government: to protect our life, liberty, and property from violence. This would be a good time for the federal government to do its job with vigor and determination.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.