Sounding the Alarm, or Just Sounding Off?

Playing politics with national security may not be a great idea, after all

In his capacity as editor of The Washington Post’s editorial page, Fred Hiatt takes a lot of criticism—some of it overwrought, much of it deserved—for things that other people have written. Monday’s Post, though, brought a change of pace: a column worthy of criticism that was written by Hiatt himself.

The point of the column seems to be that, to use Hiatt’s words, “playing politics with national security” is not necessarily a bad thing. And insofar as it goes, that’s true. It makes sense to try to set some boundaries on the rhetoric used when we debate, for example, how to respond to terrorism, and to discourage political figures from claiming that their opponents are actually, in some way, helping al-Qaeda. But there are real differences of opinion about how to approach our national security challenges, and the way we hash out differences of opinion is through politics.

So far, so good. The problem with Hiatt’s column, headlined “When politics sound the alarm on national security,” is in the examples he chooses to make this point, chief among them the debate about port security.

During and after the 2004 campaign, Hiatt notes, Democrats made much of the Bush administration’s failure to adequately screen incoming cargo, with some of them demanding “100 percent inspection.” Bush officials protested that they were doing what they could, given technological and financial constraints, but Democrats in Congress pressed the case, even after Bush won re-election.

Then, in 2008, a Democrat won the White House. His administration made efforts to step up screening but soon had to acknowledge that it would not meet the timeline imposed by Congress, due to technological and fiscal constraints. The response from Democrats in Congress? Crickets.

In Hiatt’s view, this is a mostly happy story. Democrats may have been playing politics during the Bush era, he writes, “but they also were raising legitimate questions about al-Qaeda’s ability to smuggle in a nuclear device.” In fact, “the real danger” is that Democrats who once raised alarms are now going soft on Obama.

This analysis gets things backwards. There may well be reason to worry about a nuclear device being smuggled in via a shipping container, and it may well be desirable to do what we can to improve the safety of our ports. But it does not necessarily follow that the earlier Democratic objections, at least in their most extreme form, were “legitimate,” because it appears—as indicated by the actions of the current Democratic administration—that those objections were rooted as much in an unattainable ideal of perfect security as in a competing policy vision. Hiatt embraces the earlier Democratic criticisms of Bush, and worries that the Dems will now let Obama slide. A better way to see the situation might be to flip things around: something like Obama’s approach makes sense, given the available means, and the earlier criticisms were, at least to an extent, overstated.

But while Hiatt devotes most of the column to port security, the problems in his analysis go much deeper. They’re represented in one tidy package at the column’s conclusion:

Similarly, Republicans want to depict Obama as weak on terrorism and gain electoral advantage from that. But their probing helped reveal a stunning failure by the Obama administration to weigh its options before committing the Christmas bomber to the judicial system — and that, presumably, will lead to a more considered process the next time around.

This kind of jousting may seem childish, in other words, and maybe it does, as Brennan alleged, “serve the goals of al-Qaeda.” But it also can help America.

There are a lot of flawed assumptions packed in to a brief passage there. Hiatt apparently believes it can be taken for granted, despite the available evidence, that the decision to read Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights and let the FBI handle his interrogation was “a stunning failure.” He also seems to think it self-evident that that decision was not itself the result of a “considered process”; apparently, during all those decades when the U.S. handled crimes committed on domestic soil through the law enforcement and judicial systems, we were just flailing around on an ad hoc basis.

What’s most problematic, though, is that under the framework for debate Hiatt sets up, there is one appropriate role for the opposition on national security issues: to demagogically demand that the party in power take a more hawkish approach. The impulse to find some grounds on which to attack the other side as “weak on terrorism”—regardless of the merits of that attack—inexorably ratchets policy in one direction, fosters unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved, and forecloses real debate about priorities and trade-offs. That doesn’t amount, in the end, to something that “can help America.”

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.