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Home Alone

As TNR went to press, John Ashcroft's revelation that the United States had captured an Al Qaeda operative seeking to build a dirty bomb was distracting attention from President George W. Bush's dramatic unveiling of his plan for a Department of Homeland Security. That announcement, in turn, had distracted attention from whistle-blower Coleen Rowley's testimony about FBI bungling, which, in turn, had distracted attention from the Democrats' call for a blueribbon commission to investigate the intelligence failures preceding September 11.

All of which is fine, as far as it goes. But sometime over the last month Washington seems to have forgotten that there's another component to homeland security, and it has nothing to do with removing the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service from the Department of Agriculture: It's called the war on terrorism.

Rhetorically, the Bush team seems to understand this. In a West Point speech two weeks ago, the president outlined a strategy of "preemption," whereby the United States would venture overseas to slay dragons before they reached our shores. But you wouldn't know it from the administration's record over the past few months. Nowhere has the distance between forceful words and feeble deeds been starker than in the case of Iraq. Having defined the threat posed by Saddam in the aftermath of 9/11 as "a grave and growing danger," the administration has since opted for ever-more equivocal action loosening U.N. sanctions; hinting that it may support a revival of the U.N.'s farcical weapons-inspections regime; and declining to boost aid to the Iraqi opposition. "I have no war plans on my desk," Bush assured a grateful European audience last month.

The war on terror's momentum has even ground to a halt in Central Asia. The United States has obstructed attempts to expand peacekeeping operations beyond Kabul, all but inviting Afghanistan to descend back into the chaos that made it a hospitable base for terrorists in the first place. More troubling still, Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan in recent months has been transformed from the principal sponsor of Osama bin Laden's forces into their principal refuge. American officials have pressed only gingerly for the Pakistani government to move against Al Qaeda forces believed to have crossed the border including, perhaps, bin Laden himself. Pressed to account for the light touch, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explained that Pakistan is a "sovereign nation." But this sovereign nation won't even concede the existence of terrorists within its borders. "There can't be any such large-scale concentrations [of Al Qaeda] in any area of Pakistan," Pakistani General Javed Cheema declared last month. To underscore the point, Pakistan has released most of the 2,000 Islamic militants it imprisoned at Washington's behest earlier this year.

The administration has also been tiptoeing around Saudi Arabia whose most visible response to 9/11 was to whisk its nationals out of the United States on a private plane. The Saudis, the president claimed last September, "have been nothing but cooperative." If so, that's only because the United States has declined to ask for their cooperation. Knowing the Saudis would refuse U.S. forces permission to launch attacks against Afghanistan, American bombers sat out the war at U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia. The Bush team has turned a blind eye, too, as the Saudis have held telethons for Palestinian suicide bombers, smooched Iraqi diplomats at Arab summits, and hampered Washington's pleas to shut down the bank accounts of Saudi terrorists. Indeed, just this week Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Kenneth Dam announced that the United States would rely less on "public designations of terrorists and terrorist supporters" when attempting to freeze suspect bank accounts overseas.

And what is true of the Bush team's approach to the core of the war on terrorism is also true of its approach to the war's periphery. Advertising its determination to track terrorists to the furthest corners of the globe, the administration announced in February that it was dispatching 1,200 U.S. troops to combat terrorists linked to Al Qaeda in the Philippines. But last week, when the time came for U.S. Special Forces to carry out their mission, a fear of American casualties prompted Rumsfeld to declare that he required "a greater comfort level" before sending them on combat patrols. Three days later Philippine forces fanned out into the jungle in their place where they promptly botched an effort to rescue an American missionary couple, one of whom died.

So, yes, improve border controls. Foster interagency coordination. Open up suitcases. But it would be nice if someone preferably someone at the White House remembered that building walls won't eliminate terrorism. Eliminating terrorists will.

This article originally ran in the June 24, 2002, issue of the magazine.