Failure of Leadership

By BOB HERBERT

The New York Times

August 6, 2004

Anthony Dixon and Adam Froehlich were best friends who grew up in the suburbs of southern New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia. They went to junior high school together. They wrestled on the same team at Overbrook High School in the town of Pine Hill. They enlisted in the Army together in 2002. And both died in Iraq, in roadside bombings just four months apart.

Specialist Dixon was killed on Sunday in Samarra. Specialist Froehlich was killed in March near Baquba. They were 20 years old.

No one has a clue how this madness will end. As G.I.'s continue to fight and die in Iraq, the national leaders who put them needlessly in harm's way are now flashing orange alert signals to convey that Al Qaeda - the enemy that should have been in our sights all along - is poised to strike us again.

It's as if the government were following a script from the theater of the absurd. Instead of rallying our allies to a coordinated and relentless campaign against Al Qaeda after Sept. 11, we insulted the allies, gave them the back of our hand and arrogantly sent the bulk of our forces into the sand trap of Iraq.

Now we're in a fix.

The war in Iraq has intensified the hatred of America around the world and powerfully energized Al Qaeda-type insurgencies. At the same time, it has weakened our defenses by diverting the very resources we need - personnel, matériel and boatloads of cash - to meet the real terror threats.

President Bush's re-election mantra is that he's the leader who can keep America safe. But that message was stepped on by the urgent, if not frantic, disclosures this week by top administration officials that another Al Qaeda attack on the United States might be imminent.

A debate emerged almost immediately about whether the intelligence on which those disclosures were based was old or new, or a combination of both. Nevertheless, because of the growing sense of alarm, there was an expansion of the already ubiquitous armed, concrete-fortified sites in New York City and Washington.

The pressure may be getting to Mr. Bush. He came up with a gem of a Freudian slip yesterday. At a signing ceremony for a $417 billion military spending bill, the president said: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

The nation seems paralyzed, unsure of what to do about Iraq or terrorism. The failure of leadership that led to the bonehead decision to invade Iraq remains painfully evident today. Nobody seems to know where we go from here.

What Americans need more than anything else right now is some honest information about the critical situations we're facing.

What's the military mission in Iraq? Can it be clearly defined? Is it achievable? At what cost and over what time frame? How many troops will be needed? How many casualties are we willing to accept? And how much suffering are we willing to endure here at home in terms of the domestic needs that are unmet?

Neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon was honest with the American people about Vietnam, and the result was a monumental tragedy. George W. Bush has not leveled with the nation about Iraq, and we are again trapped in a long, tragic nightmare.

As for the so-called war on terror, there is no evidence yet that the administration has a viable plan for counteracting Al Qaeda and its America-hating allies, offshoots and imitators. Whether this week's clumsy sequence of press conferences, leaks and alerts was politically motivated or not, the threat to the U.S. is both real and grave. And it can't be thwarted with military power alone.

Does the administration have any real sense of what motivates the nation's enemies? Does it understand the ways in which American policies are empowering its enemies? Does it grasp the crucial importance of international alliances and coordinated intelligence activity in fighting terror? And is it even beginning to think seriously about lessening our debilitating dependence on Middle Eastern oil?

The United States is the greatest military and economic power in the history of the planet. But it lacks a unifying sense of national purpose at the moment, and seems uncertain, even timid, as the national security challenges continue to mount. That is what a failure of leadership can do to a great power.