By Greg O'Brien, Codfish Press
Twenty seven years ago, Ronald Reagan, the great communicator, asked the American people during a debate with then-incumbent Jimmy Carter, a key moment in the 1980 presidential campaign: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?
The answer was a resounding “No,” and Republicans hitched up to Reagan’s broad coattails for a long ride down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Today on the sixth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Americans are being asked the troublesome question again, as it applies to the lagging war in Iraq, the battle against terrorism, and the strength of Homeland Security. The answers depend on the audience and who’s spinning the chairs, although the facts speak more clearly than they obscure.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, tells us the military surge is working, and that it is the only viable option to prevent Iraq and the region from tumbling into more anarchy. The Democratic response has ranged from incredulity to guarded acknowledgement that there has been some tactical gains, but no winning strategies. “They (tactical gains) will have no ultimate bearing, at this point, on the prospect of there being a political settlement in Iraq that would allow American troops to come home without leaving chaos behind,” Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. Underscoring the point, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last week concluded that the Iraqis have failed to meet 11out of 18 defined goals.
On other fronts, our fight against terrorism and efforts to shore up Homeland Security have been lacking at best. The GAO has said that the Department of Homeland Security has "not met five specific performance goals” to assure first responders—police and fire agencies—have dependable communication. “It shouldn’t take six years for a fire department to be able to talk to a police department in another jurisdiction,” Sen. Charles Shumer, D-New York, said in an Associated Press report. In a related dispatch, the AP noted a recent congressional investigation into Homeland Security’s failure to stop a tuberculosis patient from leaving the country. The investigation cited “significant security gaps, heightening concern about vulnerability of potential cases of pandemic flu or smallpox.”
As Americans today digest the congressional testimony of Gen. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and hear all the tributes from various 911 memorial services, they will likely respond to the question: are we better off today?
The grim math, at least, is clear—nearly 3,000 lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001 and more than 4,100 troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since Bush declared a “war on terrorism” in the wake of the attacks.
What is sorely needed now is a non-partisan plan with a timetable that works. If you vet the public opinion polls, most Americans at the moment don’t think we have one, and thus might answer in the negative when asked how they are feeling.