Bush needs to step it up, at home and abroad

  • Jim Hoagland / Washington Post columnist
  • Wednesday, December 19, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — To convince others that he can move the world, President Bush must now show that he can move his nation. The urgent next task in Bush’s war on global terrorism is to establish an American agenda for change at home and abroad that reflects the enormity of Sept. 11 and its aftermath.

That day of horror and the threats of new attacks against Americans were sufficient cause for the actions U.S. forces have taken to blast Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network out of its Afghan caves.

But chasing al-Qaida out of its sanctuary of choice does not end the struggle, as Bush has rightly emphasized. Sweeping and expensive military and police campaigns, as well as focused diplomacy, will still be needed to contain terrorism threats from abroad even after bin Laden is captured. These U.S. efforts to change the world will have a greater chance of success if they are coupled to a sense of dynamic change in American society as well.

That was a central lesson of the Cold War. U.S. influence abroad was dramatically heightened by domestic events as diverse as the quest for social justice embodied in the civil rights movement and the ingenuity of economic transformation in the information era. We more easily persuade others to change when we demonstrate that capacity in ourselves.

Sept. 11 has led Americans to a long-overdue concern about homeland defense and more efficient law enforcement inside U.S. borders. But those programs will not be enough to underpin and justify the vast changes that defeating global terrorism will require.

For most Americans, the attacks on New York and Washington ripped down a curtain to expose the murderous hatreds that are fed by religious extremism in the Middle East and Central Asia. This was driven home again by the recent release of that grisly candid camera performance by bin Laden and his admiring henchmen.

The videotape was shocking but not surprising. The Saudi-born terror chief had already indicted himself with his earlier declarations and actions. But it was still shocking for Americans to see and hear the calm elation and chuckles of a mass murderer describing his role in arranging the deaths of thousands. No rage, despair or other emotions that are supposed to motivate psychopaths. Just total self-satisfaction.

Shocking but not surprising also describes the mixture of denial, silence and evasion that has come from most Arab nations since the Bush administration released the tape, which was presumably purchased from middlemen in Afghanistan and shipped home by alert CIA operatives. Osama’s self-satisfaction rests on a self-centeredness among those he claims as his brethren that is simultaneously breathtaking and appalling.

U.S. officials and analysts have already begun to call on the Arab world, Pakistan, Indonesia and other nations to overhaul the politics, educational systems or social inequities that feed such hatred and denial. And these changes are an absolutely essential part of what should be the world’s response to Sept. 11.

But change will require vision and sacrifice, qualities that Washington itself has not yet supplied in vast quantities. The White House and Congress have been too quick to return to politics as usual, wrapping pet pork projects in Sept. 11 bunting even as bombing abroad and anthrax tests at home continued.

Partisan wrangling over an emergency economic stimulus package that contained both Treasury-damaging tax cuts and panicky subsidies hardly impressed the rest of the world with U.S. seriousness. The same must be said of Bush’s pushing of pre-Sept. 11 energy legislation that was already too narrow and unresponsive to the nation’s need to conserve and diversify away from the use of hydrocarbon fuels.

The administration has failed to connect its domestic economic program — built entirely on tax cuts — to the driving liberalizing forces of the international economy. The president’s early focus on the Western Hemisphere as the keystone of his foreign policy is now hostage to the border-tightening needs of homeland security. His campaign emphasis on free trade has not been followed with consistent White House attention or action.

These shortfalls have been obscured by the quick military successes in Afghanistan and the high-profile uses of diplomatic coalition-building, in which Bush risks trading strategic commitments to Pakistan and other nations for tactical advantages that could be ephemeral.

But as the Afghan campaign winds down, Bush will increasingly focus on preventing the resurgence of al-Qaida elsewhere and on the still-unsettled danger that Iraq represents for the world with its continuing development of weapons of mass destruction. He will have to mobilize new levels of support for an agenda that stretches far beyond retribution or even immediate justice.

Jim Hoagland can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or hoaglandj@washpost.com.

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