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The need for more plain talk about Iraq

By
September 13, 2007

Solemnity and sadness, remembrance and resolve filled American hearts and minds on yet another September 11 anniversary this week. Once again, for a few minutes, television transported us to the southern tip of Manhattan, to a flag-draped, once-shattered wall of the Pentagon, and to a farm field in Pennsylvania.

Then finally, we were taken to the regularly scheduled newsmakers who work in the White House and United States Capitol, buildings which stand unblemished today only because of a handful of heroes whose names we cannot recall but whose courage we can never forget, as they chose to end their lives in that farmland by rushing the cockpit to assure that al Qaeda terrorists could not crash their jetliner into one of those gleaming national symbols.

It has been six years. Yet today, those who work in the White House and the Capitol are still struggling with the fundamental questions that we have been asking ever since our national security and smugness was shattered by those hijacked jetliners on that morning of September 11, 2001.

Most importantly: What must we do to be safer?

There have been victories and defeats and diversions.

— Victory: America attacked al Qaeda in Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban that gave Osama bin Laden sanctuary from which to attack the U.S. homeland.

— Defeat: The Taliban is resurging in Afghanistan and bin Laden is plotting anew in tribal northlands of Pakistan.

— Diversion: President Bush got U.S. troops trapped in an Iraq now mired in civil war and lawlessness that allowed al Qaeda to enter and establish itself.

It was a diversion within a diversion that occupied the attention of official Washington this week: The great diversion debate about the military troop surge in Iraq. While the 9/11 ceremonies were continuing, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, America’s top military and civilian officials in Iraq, were before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urging that the surge continue until next summer, with only limited reductions until then. Democrats and a number of Republicans were skeptical.

But while Official Washington focused upon President Bush’s troop surge, Unofficial Washington provided a much-needed example of the sort of presidential leadership that we have long lacked. It was a second recent example of the sort of presidential leadership we only seem to get these days from those who are not running for president.

A few weeks ago, this column noted that former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat from Georgia, and Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, provided presidential-styled leadership in their new efforts to assure that nuclear weapons and materials around the world can be safeguarded before they can be stolen or bought on the nuclear black market by well-financed terrorists — for use against us.

Now this: On Sunday, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican, and former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission that issued its report two years ago, wrote an article in The Washington Post Outlook section headlined: “Are we safer today?”

Not safe enough,” is what their commission concluded two years ago. To that they have added: “We still lack a sense of urgency in the face of grave danger.”

Kean and Hamilton noted that in July, the National Intelligence Estimate reported that the American homeland faces a “persistent and evolving terrorist threat” from al Qaeda. How can this threat exist six years after President Bush launched those first bold responses to the attacks of 9/11?

“The answer stems from a mixed record of reform, a lack of focus, and a resilient foe,” Kean and Hamilton wrote. In talking of “a lack of focus,” Kean and Hamilton have hit upon the central problem of the Bush presidency: A presidential attention deficit disorder. Bush simply failed to focus upon the foe that attacked America — al Qaeda — and diverted his resources to the evil despot who hadn’t attacked us: Saddam Hussein. The result is what appears to Muslims worldwide as a continuing occupation of Iraq.

“The enduring threat is not Osama bin Laden but young Muslims with no jobs and no hope, who are angry with their own governments and increasingly see the United States as an enemy of Islam,” the presidential-sounding 9/11 co-chairs wrote.

Kean and Hamilton also warned that bin Laden and his sanctuary inside Pakistan must be eliminated. Pakistan should take the lead, they said. But they added, “the United States must act if Pakistan will not” — echoing Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s call (for which he was attacked by Hillary Clinton).

For now, our best hope is America’s Exes of Power. Like Nunn and Lugar, Kean and Hamilton have shown the sort of plain-speaking presidential leadership we would like to see someday from a president.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)