The New York Times
The Uncertainty Factor
By DAVID BROOKS             April 13, 2004

Twenty years ago, Secretary of State George Shultz went to the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York to give a speech about terrorism.  Fighting a war on terrorism, he emphasized, means coping with uncertainty.

Terrorists operate outside the normal rules, Shultz observed.  Because an attack is so hard to anticipate, he said, "our responses should go beyond passive defense to consider means of active prevention, pre-emption and retaliation.  Our goal must be to prevent and deter future terrorist acts."

We can't wait for the sort of conclusive evidence that would stand up in a court of law.  "We cannot allow ourselves to become the Hamlet of nations, worrying endlessly over whether and how to respond."  We have to take the battle to the terrorists so we can at least control the time and place of the confrontation.

And we have to plan these counteroffensives aware of how little we know for sure. 

Facing such great uncertainties, Shultz continued, the president has to take extra care to prepare the electorate: "The public must understand before the fact that some will seek to cast any pre-emptive or retaliatory action by us in the worst light and will attempt to make our military and our policy makers — rather than the terrorists — appear to be the culprits. The public must understand before the fact that occasions will come when their government must act before each and every fact is known."

The Shultz speech opened a rift within the Reagan administration. Shultz's argument was that uncertainty forces us to be aggressive.  Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, on the other hand, argued that uncertainty should make us cautious.  As one Weinberger aide told The Times, "The Pentagon is more aware of the downside of military operations and therefore is cautious about undertaking operations where the results are as unpredictable as in pre-emptive strikes against terrorists."

Shultz and Weinberger were clear and mature.  Both understood there is no perfect answer to terror and both understood the downsides of their respective positions.

Two decades and a national tragedy later, it is hard to find anybody that consistent. 

If you follow the 9/11 commission, you find yourself in a crowd of Shultzians.  The critics savage the Clinton and Bush administrations for not moving aggressively enough against terror.  Al Qaeda facilities should have been dismantled before 9/11, the critics say.

Then you look at the debate over Iraq and suddenly you see the same second-guessers posing as Weinbergerians.  The U.S. should have been more cautious.  We should have had concrete evidence about W.M.D.'s before invading Iraq.

Step back and you see millions of people who will pick up any stick they can to beat the administration.  They're perfectly aware of the cruel uncertainties that confront policy makers, but, opportunistically, they ignore them.

<<Now, the writer draws convoluted 'inferences'.>>

Nor has the administration itself demonstrated that it can operate as intelligently as Shultz in a world of uncertainty.  The administration war plan called for a lean, high-tech invasion.  That's fine if you know who your enemies are and where you can hit them.  But if you don't have that information, you probably have to hang around, feeling your way through the neighborhoods.  For that you need boots on the ground — enough to cope with the unexpected.  You need heavy armor, because it's likely your enemies will strike first before you know where they are.

The Bush administration sent too few troops into Iraq, and they stuck them in Humvees that couldn't withstand a semi-serious terrorist attack.

Worse yet, the administration never bothered to educate the American people on the nature of war amid uncertainty. The president did not stress beforehand that it was necessary to act, even though some of his suppositions would inevitably prove to be incorrect.

When you read the Shultz speech, you get the impression the country is aging backward.  Twenty years ago we had a leader who treated us like adults, mature enough to cope with harsh uncertainties.  Now we're talked to as if we're children, which, if you look at the hypocrisy-laden terror debate, is about what we deserve.