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February 3, 2006

2006 SOTU: Defense and Democracy…

Every year this column seeks to extract from the annual State of the Union address a basic message of the President’s concerns for the coming year. This time, two themes quickly emerged: National defense and global democratization. Taken together, President George W. Bush believes that a strong national defense and a furtherance of democracy abroad constitute the best strategy for defending our nation’s security in a post-9/11 world.

In fact, these two components are virtually inseparable.

The President’s address reflected this reality. In Iraq, the U.S. and its allies aren’t only “striking terrorist targets while we train Iraqi forces,” but also “helping the Iraqi government to fight corruption and build a modern economy so all Iraqis can experience the benefits of freedom.” Just as the Marshall Plan and NATO followed on the heels of World War II, the cessation of hostilities in Iraq will mark a crucial phase of America’s mission in the region – helping democracy take root in the Middle East.

Regarding democratization and its ultimate goal – that is, “the end of tyranny in our world” – the President was clear: “Some dismiss that goal as misguided idealism. In reality, the future security of America depends on it.” The simple truth that democracies don’t attack other democracies, a maxim originating with Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace in 1795, is still considered the only verified, empirical claim of international relations theory.

Democracies aren’t just important for what they create, but also for for what they prevent: a vacuum that fills with would-be tyrants. “Dictatorships shelter terrorists and feed resentment and radicalism and seek weapons of mass destruction,” the President told Congress. “Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors, and join the fight against terror. Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer – so we will act boldly in freedom’s cause.”

In this respect, America’s ideals and America’s self-interest don’t conflict, but align smoothly – and they always should.

That’s also true of President Bush’s terrorist surveillance program, legally conducted by the National Security Agency – the existence of which was illegally leaked by The New York Times. Not only does the program have precedent in previous administrations and the backing of federal courts, it is also in accordance with the executive powers enumerated by the Constitution. Moreover, it is vital to our nation’s security. Despite what partisan Democrats would have us believe, the past 53 months of terror-free tranquility here at home have not been a matter of dumb luck.

Nor was the lack of surveillance in years prior to September 11th and the success of the terrorist hijackers a matter of mere happenstance. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Debra Burlingame, sister of Charles “Chic” Burlingame, III, pilot of Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon, argues that Mr. Bush’s oft-demonized NSA terrorist surveillance may have thwarted the 9/11 attackers.

How so? Two hijackers of Flight 77, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, received more than a dozen phone calls from a known al-Qa'ida “switchboard” in Yemen, all with the knowledge of the NSA. However, in keeping with the prevailing institutional culture at the time, the NSA didn’t intercept the calls to avoid the appearance of “domestic spying.”

As President Bush lamented in Tuesday’s address, “we did not know about their plans until it was too late.” Indeed, terrorism can only be beaten proactively; by the time a jetliner takes out a skyscraper, it is, as the President says, too late.

Of the surveillance program, the President reminded the convened Congress that “…to prevent another attack…I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al-Qa'ida operatives and affiliates to and from America. … If there are people inside our country who are talking with al-Qa'ida, we want to know about it….”

Then again, does everybody want to know about it? This defense of the terrorist surveillance program drew looks of stupefaction from the gum-chewing Hillary Clinton, shown wide-eyed, mouth ajar in a half-grin, head shaking in disagreement, all as the President spoke the words, “We will not sit back and wait to be hit again.” No doubt this colorful “surveillance” of Sen. Clinton on national television will play well back home in New York, one-time home of the World Trade Center.

The Democrats’ churlish behavior Tuesday night served notice that they’ll continue to play politics first. The security needs of our nation, however, can’t wait for them to grow up – and this President isn’t inclined to bide his time.

As The Patriot has argued countless times, the principal threat America faces – and the principal reason we must steel ourselves for a long campaign against terrorism – is that WMD, particularly nuclear weapons, may one day fall into the hands of Jihadis bent on our destruction.

As in Afghanistan and Iraq, the best defense is a strong offense, and we fight the terrorists abroad that we might not have to fight them at home. As the President aptly warned, “[W]e cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores. There is no peace in retreat.”

The fight isn’t just with jets in the air and troops on the ground. The far more difficult and long-term job is the creation of economic and cultural conditions to promote the emergence of a sustainable and expanding democratic space in the Middle East and across Central and South Asia. In this endeavor, the U.S. can only show support and lead the way. The peoples of these regions must ultimately decide their own destiny.

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