This month's fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks provides a good opportunity to score the national efforts to fight terrorism. So as a former mayor of New York might put it, "How are we doing?"
Well, the administration's critics see only failures. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, leader of the minority Democrats, recently announced, "Under the Bush administration and this Republican Congress, America is less safe, facing greater threats and unprepared for the dangerous world in which we live."
Such conclusions aren't surprising -- but not because they're true.
Americans should expect such hysterical assessments during the "silly season" that runs up to an election. After all, security sells. Politicians think they can energize voters simply by arguing for "bumper sticker" solutions and by claiming they can be tougher and make America safer.
We've seen it before. These times are eerily similar to the 1960 Nixon vs. Kennedy campaign following Eisenhower's eight-year presidency, during which the former general's administration labored mightily to lay the foundation for how America fought the Cold War. While his predecessor Harry S. Truman uttered a lot of rhetoric about "containing" Russian power and reacted to threats including Greece, Berlin and Korea, Eisenhower patiently took a proactive course, setting up the instruments needed to stand off the Soviet Union.
It was during the Eisenhower years that NATO became a practical reality, the United States built up an overwhelming nuclear deterrent, we adopted robust military-assistance programs for our allies and we took the war of ideas seriously with the expansion of Voice of America programs.
After eight years, all the fundamental weapons needed to fight the Cold War were in place. There was, however, little evidence of that in the 1960 presidential election. Desperately attempting to shed the reputation of being soft on national security, Sen. John F. Kennedy was determined to be more anticommunist than his red-baiting opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon.
Kennedy told Americans that while they may like "Ike," they were less safe than they had been the day the president took office. There was, he said, a "missile gap." While America slept, the Soviets had built more and better missiles and bombers, erasing the American advantage in nuclear arms.
Kennedy was right. There was a gap. But it was the other way around -- the United States seriously outgunned the Soviets. The Russians had tried to hide that fact through a number of deceptive measures. For example, during military parades on Red Square, they would have the same strategic bombers fly over again and again.
Eisenhower knew we were way ahead, but he couldn't say so. In 1956, he had deployed the U-2 spy-plane, and its photos proved Russia's claims of nuclear prowess were nothing more that the proverbial Potemkin Village. But for the administration to reveal everything we knew about the Soviets would require it to squander an unprecedented strategic intelligence advantage.
Kennedy won by playing to fears. Once elected, he was too embarrassed to admit he had overstated the threat and U.S. vulnerabilities. Instead, he undertook an unprecedented nuclear arms build-up that only made the Soviets feel more vulnerable, accelerating the arms race and precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Today's failing homeland security report cards, exaggerated claims of America's vulnerabilities and knee-jerk reactions to setbacks in the terror war sound an awful lot like the "missile gap" all over again. This year's version includes some pretty silly ideas, such as inspecting every shipping container sent to the United States. This measure is wildly impractical, would be extraordinarily expensive, and, most responsible homeland security experts contend, is among the least efficient and least practical ways to counter likely terrorist threats.
Sure Americans are still at risk. There are determined killers that want to slaughter us. That's why we're at war. But while our homeland security team might not be able to stop every terrorist attack, everywhere, it's fighting back hard and doing a credible job.
Perhaps the best example is the recent terror scheme disrupted in London. In many ways, that plot to bomb a dozen trans-Atlantic flights was similar in character and organization to the September 11, 2001, attacks. But the hijackers that day flew "below the radar screen." They made plenty of mistakes that should have exposed their plot, but they went unnoticed until the day of their attack. This time, authorities were on to the London gang for almost a year.
If politicians want to help win the long war, they must do more than offer campaign slogans and scaremonger rhetoric. They should explain in detail how they will keep us safe, free and prosperous. Then voters can fill out their own report cards.
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