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A convenient threat

DICK CHENEY was certainly farsighted when he declared Wednesday that Ned Lamont's victory over Joe Lieberman would comfort ``Al Qaeda types."

Voila! Only a day later, Al Qaeda was revealed as plotting to bring down 10 planes!

I thought that was a nice parody line -- until I picked up yesterday's Wall Street Journal. There, editorial page writer Daniel Henninger, in a column headed, ``Democrats Knifed Lieberman on Eve of Airliner Plot," goes beyond parody.

Henninger writes, ``[G]etting on a US airliner, who would you rather have in the Senate formulating policy towards this threat -- Ned Lamont or Joe Lieberman?"

We will face this story line between now and the November election, and beyond: As the terror threat rises, you can't trust critics of the Bush administration to keep America safe. The war in Iraq, the nuclear designs of Iran, Hezbollah's rocketing of Israel, new diabolical tactics by Al Qaeda, and the general ideological and military menace of militant Islamism, are all jumbled into a single all-purpose word -- waronterror. And if you're against the Bush strategy, you are of course with the terrorists.

``Bipartisan" Democrats such as Lieberman, who help President Bush, are good guys. Those who question Bush's strategy help our enemies and make America less safe. The November elections, and the future of our security, will depend on whether Americans see through this blarney. If the right succeeds in persuading voters that this is all one undifferentiated mess requiring Bush-style bravado, America is in even deeper trouble.

There are really several different policy challenges and debates here. If you disentangle them, it adds up to a stunning indictment of Bush.

Did Al Qaeda have any connection to Saddam Hussein? (No.)

Was Bush's Iraq war a debilitating diversion of attention and resources from the more important ongoing battle against Al Qaeda? (Yes.)

Did Bush spend most of 2001 blowing off warnings about Al Qaeda, shutting out people like national security official Richard Clarke who actually knew something about terrorism, and ignoring escalating warnings of a plot in progress? (Yes.)

Has the Iraq war made America a more effective force for stability and against militant Islamism? (No.)

Did Bush's grand strategy advance the cause of Middle East democracy and civility? (No.)

Does Bush's larger design for the Middle East make Israel more secure? (No.)

Can we have effective levels of surveillance against terrorism and still remain a constitutional democracy with liberties for law-abiding Americans? (Yes -- but this administration is needlessly jeopardizing those liberties, and bungling intelligence operations despite expanded resources.)

Does Bush's contempt for government impede his administration's ability to use government to promote national security? (Yes.)

With hundreds of millions of ordinary Muslims increasingly disgusted and alienated by Bush's policy, can't we just settle this thing once and for all, with an Armageddon to take out Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda, in one fell swoop? (No!)

This argument isn't about who supports terrorists. It's about the right strategy for protecting America. And ever since this president took office, his policies have set back that cause.

Undaunted, the right will be relentlessly pounding one story: Republicans will keep you safe, Democrats won't. Meanwhile, the far right allied with Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will be pounding Bush to widen the war and compound the damage.

The administration is now using the London arrests as vindication of extraordinary police and intelligence powers. Supposedly, Democrats' qualms about illegal domestic spying ordered by Bush would disable such counterintelligence. That's nonsense. The USA Patriot Act, expanding surveillance, was passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities. In some circumstances, it requires a secret court to approve surveillance. This approval is virtually always given. The illegal spying explicitly violated what Congress enacted and Bush signed. Many Republicans oppose it.

So, to answer Henninger: Getting on an airplane, I'd much rather have Lamont in the Senate, and either Democrats or traditional foreign-policy Republicans in the Congressional majority and the White House.

After more than five years of Bush's blundering grandiosity, a majority of Americans are increasingly skeptical of his policies. America has never faced anything like the hydra-headed threat of Islamist terrorism. Bush's entire performance, from assumption to execution, has placed America at greater risk. To say that is not to abet terrorism, and Bush's critics should be saying it loud and clear.

Correction: Last week I wrote that the Senate's investigation of tax cheating was initiated by Democratic Senator Carl Levin and later endorsed by his Republican counterpart, Senator Norm Coleman. The investigation was proposed by Levin, but conducted on a bipartisan basis.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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