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Countdown to War

We should not initiate military action until we're ready for a war at home

February 02, 2003|Jack Miles | Jack Miles, recently named a MacArthur Fellow, is senior advisor to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. He is the author, most recently, of "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God."

"If war is forced upon us," President Bush said in his State of the Union address, "we will fight in a just cause and by just means, sparing, in every way we can, the innocent." Commendable intentions, about which more below, but first a word about the innocent who most deserve the president's protection -- namely, the people of the United States. On the eve of war, this nation is lamentably unprepared for the counterattack that terrorism experts regard as ominously likely.

The Al Qaeda terrorist network has not been defeated. Its leadership escaped the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and has regrouped in Pakistan, where it has reportedly received nuclear training. If the Bush administration is right that there has been active cooperation between Al Qaeda and Iraq, then we must expect Al Qaeda to respond when Iraq is attacked.

That danger would remain, however, even if there were no active cooperation between the two. This is so because on the terms of its own Islamist ideology, Al Qaeda is fighting for the Umma, the Muslim world as a whole, and may rightfully avenge an infidel attack against any country within the Umma, even one whose ruler it abhors. Al Qaeda despised (and despises) the Saudi royal family. Yet the group's Sept. 11 attacks sought to punish the United States for daring to station its infidel soldiers on sacred territory within Saudi Arabia.

The likeliest time for an attack is immediately after the fighting begins in Iraq. With nothing to lose, Saddam Hussein may strike back. As for Al Qaeda, Muslims around the world will interpret a second, post-invasion 9/11 as a counterattack in their defense. The opportunity for Al Qaeda to score a propaganda bonanza by attacking at just this moment is, alas, uniquely good.

Yet on the eve of war with Iraq, fear of Al Qaeda seems in eclipse in this country. In anticipation of a major tax cut, the Senate has cut $8 billion from increased security at ports, $362 million from border security and $500 million from the strengthening of police and fire department preparedness -- and these cuts are from appropriations that are already shockingly low given the character of the threat we face. We seem to have forgotten that Al Qaeda did not employ weapons of mass destruction to destroy the World Trade Center. Its weapons on that occasion were major unprotected civilian assets in the United States, and such are likely to be its weapons on this occasion as well.

Unfortunately, we have failed to prepare serious civilian defense against even the worst risks of this sort -- namely, the risk of a Bhopal or a Chernobyl induced by Al Qaeda sabotage. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified 873 chemical plants where sabotage could kill from 100,000 to as many as 1 million. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has testified that serious security deficiencies exist at many of these plants. Yet the Senate has just killed legislation to defend them. Are we at war or not? The Senate seems to think not.

Similarly, American nuclear power plants are still required to defend against no larger a terrorist team than four, all operating on land, none by air. (Contrast France, where nuclear power plants are protected by antiaircraft installations.) Republican Gov. George E. Pataki of New York has just released a study showing that the Indian Point nuclear power plant outside New York City is vulnerable to terrorist-induced meltdown, yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission resists all calls for an emergency wartime shutdown of the plant. Again, are we at war or not?

In the 1950s, the United States did not shrink from subjecting even impressionable children to air-raid drills. However little practical protection these drills may have afforded, they provided invaluable psychological preparation for those of us who were put through them. They reminded us, adults as well as children, of what we were up against in our nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the Bush administration fears that requiring anything similar of the public in the hope of reducing the loss of life from a second or third 9/11 will undermine support for the Iraq invasion. But the grim fact is that we face in Al Qaeda an enemy capable of inflicting Chernobyl- or Bhopal-size damage upon us. The time to prepare for the worst is always before it happens.

Does this mean we should not invade Iraq? Not necessarily. But given the stakes here at home, timing matters enormously. Two hundred inspectors have been at work in Iraq for about two months. Why not 2,000 for a period that will be deliberately left indefinite? So long as a date certain for the withdrawal of the inspectors is announced beforehand, no Iraqi dares to come forward.

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