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Capture the Flag

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
09.29.2004 | POLITICS

"[T]he administration is full of shit. In my view we are much, much worse off now than when we went into Iraq. I think they are incompetent."

-- A senior fellow at a military-funded think tank, stating the obvious in James Fallows' "Bush's Lost Year" in the current issue of the Atlantic.

Three weeks after the RNC, Zell Miller's blood pressure has returned to normal. Not back to normal are the president's numbers, which remain inflated by the show put on in New York. For four nights only, The Phantom of the Office ran just blocks from The Phantom of the Opera, and if the latest polls are right, the production convinced several million likely voters that Bush/Cheney leadership represents a triumph of "moral clarity" deserving four more years.

For those who remain unconvinced, this hanging bounce is like watching a 1987 slow-motion tape of Michael Jordan slam dunking from the free-throw line--and knowing his sneakers are made of cement. Pull the plug on the 9/11 highlight reel and shove a choke ball in Rudy's mouth, and Bush ceases to resemble the action-hero holograms projected in New York. Pull back the red, white and blue curtain, and it isn't Winston Churchill, John Wayne or even Ronald Reagan that stares back at you, but Ronald Reagan's education secretary Ted Bell. In 1983, Bell issued a report on the state of American public education entitled "A Nation at Risk." The study is remembered today mainly for the line, "If an outside power were to impose upon this country our current education system, we would consider it an act of war."

The same could be said for this administration's record on national security. Nobody is using language quite this strong, but CIA veteran Michael Scheuer and ex-terror czar Richard Clarke have come close. Finally, the echoes are multiplying, getting louder. If hypocritically and too late, Kerry is starting to throw his hip behind his punches; independent Republican bigs, represented by the Hagel/McCain/Lugar troika, are finding their voice; and this month James Fallows has set an excellent example for his press colleagues in the current Atlantic, where he amplifies the stark conclusion of America's national security community: that the administration's response to 9/11 has been "a catastrophe."

If you think "catastrophe" is an overstatement, ask yourself a few questions: If Osama bin Laden were guiding the U.S. defense and homeland security budgets, how would he spend the money? Would he triple funds for the Nunn-Lugar Initiative, which seeks to put a firm clamp on loose nuclear materials in the ex-U.S.S.R., or would he pour billions into Cold War crap shoots like missile defense and spaced-based lasers? Would bin Laden have pumped steroids into our anemic human intelligence capability, or would he have pulled Arabic-speaking case officers out of Afghanistan in 2002, then overstretched the U.S. military by launching and escalating a hopeless counterinsurgency war and p.r. shitstorm in oil-rich Iraq? Would he have supported a vigorous investigation into how 9/11 happened and how it could have been stopped, or would he have stonewalled the project, then cut its funding at first chance?

If voters were forced to smell the Bush record up close, we'd be looking down the barrel of a 1964-style Kerry trounce in November, followed by several high-level prosecutions and a steep, generational decline in the fortunes of the Republican Party.

The latest in an uninterrupted stream of post-9/11 examples of backward GOP priorities came last week, when the Republican Senate blocked attempts to increase funding for more than a dozen programs in the 2005 Homeland Security spending bill. What were the proposed increases? You know, diamond-tiaras-for-black-teenage-mothers-type stuff: $300 million dollars for port security, $146 million for firefighters, $70 million to track shipments of hazardous materials, $50 million for more federal Air Marshals, $70 million to secure chemical plants, $625 million for discretionary grants for high-threat, high-density urban areas, $350 million to improve security at points of entry into the United States.

Exactly the kind of pinko pork you'd expect a senator from Massachusetts to waste your tax dollars on. The backdrop for this newfound financial restraint is of course the bloody cesspool in Iraq, for which the same Senate, Dick Cheney presiding, has already approved $144 billion and counting. (To watch the numbers blur before your eyes, day and night, see Project Billboard and Iraq Body Count.)

The rejection of further funds to secure the nation's chemical plants is especially noteworthy, coming as it did on the heels of a report issued by Charles Schumer's office, which finds that three years after 9/11, security remains lax and federal security standards nonexistent at 112 hazardous-material facilities where the release of chemicals could threaten more than one million people. Similar egregious security gaps persist down the line, from nuclear plants to aviation and rail security.

Also last week, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay announced his intention to subvert one of the few accomplishments his president can claim in fighting terrorism--the 9/11 Commission. It's a negative accomplishment, true, but the White House did eventually buckle under enormous pressure to grudgingly allow a bipartisan group to investigate the attacks and identify the nation's soft spots. Though the official 9/11 Commission Report is far from the last word on the subject, the Commission at least put forth a more sophisticated understanding of Islamic terrorism than the White House. More importantly, it provided lawmakers with a wide-ranging list of ideas on how to improve the nation's defense. Its conclusions were based on a year and a half of research, interviews and expert testimony.

But DeLay, in silent concert with the White House, is now saying he finds the idea of enacting the Commission's 41 recommendations "pretty laughable." As in, ha-ha, an ex-bug sprayer from Texas is deciding how best to protect the country while he waits for the Rapture. Funny, funny stuff.

In place of the 9/11 Commission's ideas, DeLay says he's going to draw up his own anti-terror policies, with the help of other Republican "experts" on various House Committees. As Spencer Ackerman writes in the New Republic, Tom DeLay is not a man any sane administration would allow within 100 yards of the Commission's proposals. This is the same guy who used Homeland Security resources to go after Democrats who opposed the 2002 redistricting of Texas, and who said an independent 9/11 inquiry would only "make Osama bin Laden's job easier." This is also a man who hangs a plaque on his office wall that says: "This Could Be The Day."

In DeLay's world, as in the president's, "The Day" will involve an apostate Jew leading an army to battle on the Plain of Armageddon, followed by the defeat of Satan by Jesus and the conversion of 12,000 Jews from each of the 12 tribes, who will then ascend to Heaven with all the world's Christian souls, presumably led by George and Laura Bush.

For the rest of us, "The Day" on the calendar that matters is much more mundane and preliminary. Instead of Jesus picking up an Uzi, a few million people in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida will either wake up on November 2 and smell the wicks that have been allowed to burn, or they won't. If the Democrats can't make the case for strategic competence over "moral clarity" between now and then, then maybe the Jesus freaks deserve the country, after all.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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