Real Security Won't Come Easy--or Cheap

One year after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the U.S. may be underestimating the security challenges that lie ahead. At home, the government and private sector optimistically assume that security against further terrorist attacks can be achieved at a modest cost. Internationally, the U.S. has barely begun the hard diplomatic work of assembling international coalitions to uproot terrorists and the expensive project of rebuilding Afghanistan so it ceases to be a safe harbor for terror.

At this point, the U.S. faces an unenviable choice: more guns or more butter. Many security experts believe it will cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to shore up American defenses against terrorists, who could cripple the power grid, contaminate the food and water supplies, or set off dirty bombs that spew radiation.

If those security experts are right, then the U.S. has scarcely started to spend what's required. The legislation establishing a Homeland Security Dept. will mainly shift funds from existing agencies. And the Bush Administration is projecting that spending on defense as a share of GDP will actually decrease slightly between now and 2006.

A big increase in defense and security spending--beyond what the Administration is projecting--could strain the economy. It's not a problem in the current slump, when there's plenty of labor and capital available. But if higher spending kicks in when the economy is using all its resources, something will have to give. It could drive up interest rates, for instance, raising the cost of buying houses and cars. That's why few politicians have been willing to broach the idea. But Americans live in a tough neighborhood, and a national debate on how much to spend on security is urgently needed.

Of course, no security measure can be 100% effective against determined, organized foes. That's why another goal of the U.S. must be to scuttle attacks before they're ever launched. That requires infiltrating and disrupting terrorist cells. And that, in turn, demands intimate cooperation with other nations' security agencies. If the U.S. is seen as a bully, its demands for sensitive information will be met with silence. The same goes for nation-building, which must be part of any plan to eradicate terrorism. The U.S. needs to be respected as an honest broker if it is to lead multinational projects to restore hope and the rule of law in the likes of Afghanistan, Somalia, and post-Hussein Iraq.

Unfortunately, the go--it-alone foreign policy of the Administration has squandered a good deal of the world's sympathy. The U.S. is angering rich and poor allies alike with its protectionist farm bill and steel tariffs. And on foreign aid, Bush has continued the penny-pinching ways of the Clinton Administration, devoting just one-tenth of 1% of GDP to nonmilitary aid. In the 1960s, the ratio was four times as high.

As horrible as it is to contemplate, Americans need to face the possibility that September 11 could someday be remembered as merely a prelude to far more lethal attacks. To keep that from happening, the U.S. must shoulder the considerable burdens of increasing vigilance at home while building and strengthening anti-terrorist coalitions abroad.

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