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Faint Winds of Caution

November 25, 2001

by John K. Bates

As Americans well know, the war effort against the ruling Taliban regime in Afghanistan has gone remarkably well. The effort started somewhat slowly, but once the United States resolved to actually assist those who would overthrow that repressive regime, it did not take long to weaken their defenses to the point of collapse. Once again, American military power has proven to be overwhelming when deployed with determination and resolve.

But like the first breeze ahead of an approaching winter storm, there are faint winds of caution starting to blow. A look just underneath the surface of both the war effort and the Bush administration raises some disturbing questions that need to be answered.

On the domestic front, economic news continues to be rather bleak. The specter of deflation - a much graver threat to long-term economic health than either unemployment or inflation - has now appeared, though most analysts do not yet consider it to be a major threat. Unemployment is up as expected, and consumer spending is predicted to be flat (at best) this holiday season. Confidence is down, and the markets remain sluggish. While the nation has certainly seen worse times, the trend is not good and does not look to improve soon.

Sadly, the current Bush administration does not seem to have learned much from the first Bush administration in managing the economy. It is potentially great irony that George W. Bush risks making the exact same mistakes as George H. W. Bush, mistakes which in no small part ended the latter’s presidency four years too soon. Both men show a disturbing faith and trust in the federal government to solve the nation’s ills. The recently signed “travel security” bill is a good example; despite enormous political cachet, Bush was unable to prevent the Democrats from unionizing airport security workers. This silly ploy - think of the United States Postal Service - will do nothing to help traveler security but will succeed in inflating Democrat voting rolls and in costing billions of extra tax dollars. Bush formally opposed this bad idea and had a chance to stand up and make the case that the federal government is not the panacea for all that ails us. Instead, (like his father) ended up giving in to “compromise” and ended up embracing even bigger government.

Bush has also erred on tax cuts. By failing to cut taxes now when he had the ability and the political clout, he has waffled and equivocated and settled for piddling tax cuts to be deferred far too long to make a significant impact. He also has handcuffed his ability to cut taxes later, when the economy is in a deeper recession and the federal budget deficit reappears. One can even imagine Bush giving into Democrat demands to raise taxes in order to “reduce the deficit; ” his desire to seem “bipartisan” makes such a scenario not only possible, but seemingly likely. Bush’s timidity on taxes is even more galling when one remembers that taxes are still much higher than in 1993, when Bill Clinton took office. Only a man who fundamentally does not believe in reducing the burdens of the federal government could miss this opportunity. Bush, like his father, sadly seems to believe that there is no such thing as too much government.

More winds, and more chilling winds, blow from abroad. Afghanistan and the Taliban were the “easy” targets in the war on terror. But our stated aims dictate that the next targets will be much more difficult. Iraq looks to be culpable in the September 11 attacks; other nations (Iran, Syria, Sudan, North Korea) have long been sponsors and supporters of anti-western terrorism. If the United States is to “wipe out terrorism” across the globe, these countries will at some point either be attacked by the United States or forced to turn their own military against the terrorists living within their borders. Either situation will be difficult politically; using U.S. forces against the hardened defenses of countries such as Syria or North Korea will certainly result in heavy casualties. Worse yet would be if America backs down from its resolve. No amount of political or diplomatic doublespeak can help the administration recover if it ends this conflict too soon or if it states its goals “accomplished” when they clearly are not.

To its credit, there is no evidence the administration plans to call an end to the conflict anytime soon. But there has also been no effort to make the case to the American people of exactly where we go from here. Most Americans know that Iraq and Iran and Syria and other countries sponsor terrorism. Most know or suspect that Iraq was behind or at least affiliated with both the September 11 attacks and the subsequent anthrax troubles. However the administration continues to be remarkably silent in making a case as to who is culpable and what we will do about it. We are not told of any efforts to face terror in any additional country. Nor are we informed of any efforts to enlist natural allies in the region, countries such as Turkey or even Iran that historically have been more favorable towards the West. These efforts may be occurring, but it is up to this administration to begin to enlist the people so that they better understand what is next.

More winds blow when we consider the state of our military. It took 500,000 troops to defeat Iraq in 1991. Twelve years later, after both Bush Sr. and Clinton spent our so-called “peace dividend,” the military is effectively emaciated. Many military experts doubt that we could launch another Desert Storm if we so chose, let alone conduct such an operation while engaged in several fronts worldwide. Furthermore, we have yet to begin any serious troop buildup in the region, and there is little talk of starting one soon. Such delay - if it is a delay - may be explainable. But the longer the administration allows the war on terror to be seen as simply a war on Afghanistan, the harder it will be to make the case we are willing or even able to carry the war to the next front.

George W. Bush has done an admirable job thus far. But his faith in the government and a tendency to not disclose even basic information to the American people are hurting his ability to lead this nation through both the economic malaise and the terrorism war that we have now entered. It is time for this administration to begin to be bolder in making the case for both economic recovery and the inevitable expansion of the terrorism conflict. Afghanistan is finished, and it was a good victory. If we are to be victorious in the stated overall war on terror, it is only the first step. It is time for this administration to prepare us to move on to the next step.

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