The Breakfast Table

American Insecurity

Good morning David,

Another bloody front-page picture in the New York Times this morning–this time it’s the embassy employees who survived the bombing in Nairobi, arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, on their way to American hospitals. At 10:30 a.m. Eastern time CNN will broadcast the ceremony at Andrews, as the President and families of the victims receive the bodies of ten Americans killed in the blasts. It’s a grim day, and the faces of American officials show it.

When Americans are hurt and killed abroad it naturally stirs up feelings of national insecurity, and the sense that we, as a nation, must do something to protect ourselves. The problem is, what to do?

The lead story in the Washington Post reports that Ambassador Prudence Bushnell twice asked that the U.S. embassy in Nairobi be moved to a more secure building. In hindsight, it seems terrible that the government refused to listen, stating at the time that Nairobi was a low-risk country. Could beefed-up security have helped?

The Post story says that even if the State Department had approved Bushnell’s recommendation, “the decision would not have prevented the lethal bombing last Friday that killed 12 Americans.” Maybe they should have taken some additional steps for safety. But it’s very hard to guard against terrorism. One can never be completely protected from low-tech attacks by fanatics.

Furthermore, having fortress-like embassies around the globe is not a great solution. I’ve visited U.S. embassies in Latin America that bristled with armed guards, surrounded by high walls with barbed wire and metal detectors. The feeling of paranoia was palpable. And the image of the U.S. as a hostile power, fearful and isolated from the country where its embassies are located, is not conducive to peace.

Many members of Congress recognized this principle when they announced, after the gunman attacked the Capitol a couple of weeks ago, that they would not turn the Capitol building into a fortress, and would do everything to keep it open to the people, even as they tried to take some steps to ensure safety there. Real security depends on good relations among neighbors–people who live on the same block, in one nation, and foreigners living in other nations. But there’s a powerful psychological phenomenon that makes us want to pull in and circle the wagons when we¹ve been attacked. It’s more satisfying to say we¹re tough enough to beat up anyone who tries to hurt us.

On CNN this morning I caught Madeleine Albright issuing a warning to international terrorists: “Our memory is long and our reach is far. We will not be intimidated or pushed off the world stage by those who don¹t like what we stand for.”

This kind of bellicose talk worries me. I think it appeals to people on a deep, emotional level to think that the U.S. can stand up to the world, exact revenge, and make dangerous people abroad run away in fear of our power. But in the wake of the cold war, the problem for the U.S., the world’s only superpower, is not a perception that we’re weak. Rather, there are all kinds of messy political problems around the globe that require diplomacy. And instead of threatening to dominate the world stage, we’ve got to work with everyone else on it.

The Times reports on the front page today that things are getting worse in Iraq, which is refusing to comply with weapons inspectors. If talks break down completely, and we begin threatening war, the only effective means of monitoring and diminishing Iraq’s weapons program will be lost. And it would be horrible to see the U.S. bomb and more Iraqi civilians caught in the middle die for no reason.

If Americans keep feeling vulnerable, and if the Clinton Administration decides it serves its political interests to launch a foreign attack, it may make people here feel better temporarily, but in the long run it undermines security and peace.

What do they say in Canada?