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Archive for Sunday, September 12, 2004

Civility sorely lacking in nation’s political arena

September 12, 2004

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— There's little disagreement among pundits or politicians that the United States was woefully unprepared for the treachery of 9-11.

As we mark the third anniversary of that despicable attack, unfortunately, our military has yet to be fully transformed into a force capable of dealing with the shadowy world of Islamic totalitarianism.

It's equally incredible that homeland security was treated so cavalierly for so long in the face of clear and repeated signals that al-Qaida already had declared a no-holds-barred war on America.

During the last decade, al-Qaida and its allies launched repeated attacks on the United States -- in 1993 at the World Trade Center, in 1997 at the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia, in 1998 at our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and in 2000 on the USS Cole in Yemen.

There is enough blame to go around without pointing fingers at either the Democrats or Republicans, however.

Although we have made strides in shoring up our intelligence capabilities and our defense posture, the festering bitterness of American politics is eroding our ability to deal effectively with the threat of global terrorism.

Partly it is the growing lack of civility in our political discourse. The withering salvos of some television attack ads have produced a barren wasteland where reflective public debate is all but impossible.

Worse, the system of bipartisan compromise that allowed us to make swift, responsible decisions through most of the 20th century appears to have vanished from the federal stage.

Two of my favorite members of Congress -- from different parties -- put their finger on the issue in separate conversations I had with them over the past year. One is a senior Republican senator from America's southwest, with a wonderful sense of humor and a dogged determination to, as he puts it, "move the ball forward." Another is a senior and distinguished Democratic representative from the northwest -- a fierce stalwart on defense, but well within his party's liberal mainstream on social issues.

Both believe the political process is broken. The GOP senator pointed at the dome of the U.S. Capitol as we had lunch recently to make an analogy.

From our vantage point, he noted, it looks fine -- standing tall and firm. Our political process still looks that way at a distance, but it's been eroding for many years, he observed -- suddenly sweeping his hand outward as if the Capitol's dome had crashed from its lofty place to the wide expanse of lawn below.

Both he and his Democratic colleague declared that our sound-bite campaigns salvage political foes to the point where producing a principled agreement on major issues has become all but impossible.

They both complained about the year-round fund-raising that requires federal legislators to cater to special-interest supporters by using scare-tactics to demonize their political opponent.

When you spend most of the year taking pot-shots at each other to get re-elected, they agreed, it's extremely difficult to reach across the aisle and forge political agreements that serve the nation's interests rather than one's own.

This results in saddling appropriations legislation with huge amounts of pork totally unrelated to the bill's original purpose -- just to assure enough votes for passage. It also means that many of the policy changes needed to streamline national security policy often end up at cross-purposes.

Since 2002, indeed, the Senate has found it impossible to bring any important issue to a vote. This year -- in the midst of a presidential election and a war against terror -- only a few appropriations measures have been enacted. The filibuster, once used sparingly, is now universally applied.

No one doubts that Americans want their elected officials to thoroughly debate the burning issues of the day. But they also want them to put pettiness aside and arrive at decisions that serve the commonweal.

Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey calls our continuing struggle against religious fanaticism "World War IV" and believes that winning it will require all branches of government to work in the same cooperative spirit that won World War II.

Now is the time that our political process should be flowing smoothly -- not lurching along and threatening to come to a screeching halt. We do not have 15 million men and women under arms as we did in World II, but freedom and democracy once again are in dire jeopardy.

Winning this new kind of war against faceless and ruthless enemies requires complete cooperation and mutual respect from both public servants and private citizens alike. We can no longer afford to linger.

We -- the people -- must resolve to begin this vital transformation today.

-- Peter Huessy is a senior defense associate at the National Defense University Foundation. Readers may write to him at: The Committee on the Present Danger, 1146 19th St. N.W., Suite 310, Washington, D.C. 20036.

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