Commentary

Turning to Government

Patriotism is back in America. Sales of American flags are sky high, “God Bless America” leads the hit parade, and politicians are avoiding negative campaigning. For many people this renaissance of patriotism also involves a renewed confidence in the federal government: A recent poll found that 64 percent of Americans say they trust the federal government to do the right thing “nearly always” or “most of the time” — the highest level of trust in government since 1966 and double the level a year ago.

The increased support for the federal government makes sense. Finally, the government is focused on its main purpose: the protection of the lives and property of Americans. People who had lost confidence in the government’s attempts to run the trains or the post office or to provide everything under the sun can only be pleased to see it concentrating on protecting individual rights.

However, the increased confidence in government is not as clear as it seems. The Sept. 11 attacks, after all, reflect a massive failure of the government. With $1.9 trillion a year and 1.8 million employees, the government failed to anticipate or prevent a military attack on New York and Washington. It failed in its first duty.

It might be suggested that the attacks came out of the blue, that no government could have been prepared for them. In fact, there were repeated warnings — often from within the government itself — that terrorist attacks inthe United States were likely.

  • The attempt by associates of Osama bin Laden to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 should have been a stark warning of terrorist threats inside our borders.
  • In 1997 the National Defense Panel — a group of retired generals and civil defense experts — called for a reemphasis on defending the American homeland in light of the increase in threats of terrorism.
  • That same year the Department of Defense wrote in its report, Proliferation: Threat and Response, “As the new millennium approaches, the United States faces a heightened prospect that regional aggressors, third-rate armies, terrorist cells, and even religious cults will wield disproportionate power by using — or even threatening to use — nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons against our troops in the field and our people at home.”
  • After Bin Laden’s bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 reminded us of the threat, former defense secretary John Deutch said, “We must insist on superior intelligence that will warn of potential terrorist actions… . Our country is not fully prepared to act effectively on these matters.”
  • Also in August 1998, the Reagan administration’s former anti-terrorism chief, L. Paul Bremer III, wrote that bin Laden and his associates “hate America, its values and its culture and proudly declare themselves to be at war with us.” He urged beefed-up security, more pressure on terrorist groups, and “a large reward for bin Laden’s capture — dead or alive” to “exacerbate the paranoia common to all terrorists.”
  • Bremer was appointed to head a National Commission on Terrorism, which reported in 2000 that “the threat of attacks creating massive casualties is growing.”
  • On July 26, 1999, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen wrote: “In the past year, dozens of threats to use chemical or biological weapons in the United States have turned out be hoaxes. Someday, one will be real… . There is not a moment to lose.”
  • In February 2001, the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, headed by former senators Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) made similar warnings.
  • Later in 2001 — but before Sept. 11 — the Federal Aviation Administration’s Criminal Acts Against Civil Aviation report warned, “Bin Laden’s anti-Western and anti-American attitudes make him and his followers a significant threat to civil aviation, particularly to U.S. civil aviation.”

Warnings came from foreign sources as well. Columnist Jim Hoagland writes, “The Clinton White House did not want to hear about or deal seriously with Iraq. Defectors ranging from Khidhir Hamza, one of Saddam’s chief nuclear scientists, to lowly intelligence officers have been met with a cold shoulder and reluctance by the FBI, CIA, DIA, etc., to listen to, assess and then share the information about terrorism the defectors possess.” And the respected Israeli journalist Ze’ev Schiff wrote recently that the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service met with Attorney General Janet Reno and the heads of the FBI and the CIA to inform that terrorist cells were being established in the United States. “They looked at him forgivingly, and claimed that he was exaggerating.”

And the Cato Institute issued several warnings about the threat of terrorism, often based on official government documents. The 1997 Cato Handbook for Congress warned, “The sabotage of Pan American flight 103, the bombing of the World Trade Center, and (possibly) the crash of TWA flight 800 make it clear that Americans have become targets of international terrorism. Unfortunately, that danger is likely to grow rather than recede in the coming years. Moreover, the potential for thousands, rather than dozens or hundreds, of casualties in any single incident is also rising.”

In his 1998 paper “Protecting the Homeland,” Ivan Eland wrote, “Recently, several government reports have emphasized the need for increased attention to the defense of the American homeland. The proliferation of technology for creating weapons of mass terror and conducting chemical, biological, nuclear, and information warfare has reawakened interest in protecting the homeland.” And a November 2000 Cato study deplored the federal government’s failure to educate Americans about civil defense preparedness.

So it’s odd that Americans’ confidence in government would rise sharply after a massive failure of government to do its job. Presumably the phenomenon reflects Americans’ love for their country, which they express in a time of crisis by declaring their support for their government and approval of the Bush administration’s response to the attacks. It’s a sort of prospective vote of confidence, not in what the government has done, but in what we hope it will do.

If our elected officials want confidence in government to stay at these high levels, they must show results in the fight against terrorism. One element of that process involves trimming the vast scope of the federal government and focusing on the core function for which it was established. As the Declaration of Independence says, “governments are instituted … to secure these rights [of] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That ‘s a big enough job for one entity, even the federal government.

A lot of the corporate conglomerates of the 1960s proved unwieldy, and their managers eventually sold off many of their acquisitions and focused on their core businesses. They trimmed and they got stronger — less is more. The U.S. government should emulate that model: Get out of the game of trying to supply all the desires of 270 million people, and concentrate on protecting us from mass murder. As for the rest, the market and American know-how will take care of it.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute.