January 23, 2002 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
It's more than just the small American flags waving from every
third car or the large cloth banners hanging from highway
overpasses all over the country. Since Sept. 11, America has gotten
serious about many things that seemed forgotten in recent
Americans again want their government focused on its main responsibility: national defense. The more President Bush has spoken of this as a priority, the more Americans' faith in their government and its leaders has grown.
Now comes the hard part. To put defense first, we must downgrade functions of government not related to defense -- particularly those that haven't proven effective. This won't be easy. It may create genuine hardship and spark vigorous political battles. But history has vindicated this common-sense approach.
In 1942, shortly after the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt mobilized the nation for war. New Deal programs -- his own initiatives to pull the country out of the Great Depression -- stood in the way for funds, priority and energy.
Fortunately, Roosevelt cared more about his country than about his programs. He proposed in his first budget after the attack that Congress cut spending for federal-assistance programs in half. During the war, few New Deal programs were spared from budget cuts.
Today's challenges require a similar shift. New security programs at all levels of government must be funded, as must significant investment in new security technologies. Like Roosevelt, we must back these new priorities as if our lives depended on them -- because, indeed, they may.
Because the money to pay for them must come from other programs that often serve citizens with legitimate needs, we must ensure that these new initiatives do, in fact, bring real security. Here are a few of the many recommendations The Heritage Foundation's Homeland Security Task Force came up with to point out how we can do this most effectively:
And the American private sector, engine of the most successful
economy in world history, can't be left on the sidelines. It owns
or operates most of the nation's vital assets. Therefore, it
handles security for computer nodes, energy grids, port facilities,
and -- until recently -- airports. Government needs this expertise,
and market forces will ensure competitive costs.
The government must provide oversight, of course -- set
standards, hold the industry accountable and remove roadblocks to
providing effective security. But the ideas that drive the free
market can and should be put to use in keeping America safe.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., for one, doesn't see these
advantages. He says that "letting a thousand different ideas
compete and flourish" won't work and that only the federal
government has the "breadth, strength and resources" to succeed. He
helped pass the bill that added tens of thousands of people to the
federal payroll to provide a service -- airport security -- that
can, was and should be provided by the private sector.
Even if the events of Sept. 11 could be blamed on lax airport
security, federalizing those positions won't improve that security.
What will? What always has made America great. Diverse ideas.
Competition. Companies looking to build that better security
mousetrap will come up with the best and most economical ways to
keep America's airports safe.
Can this be said of the sprawling federal bureaucracy created by
the Aviation Safety Act? Or any other federal bureaucracy for that
Unfortunately, FDR's lesson of wartime priorities has been lost
on many of his successors. Just grow the government, they say. Let
it take care of everything.
Actually, the government does best when it stays focused on its
constitutionally mandated priorities and lets private industry
contribute its ideas whenever possible. The American people
understand that. You can tell from the flags in their windows and
those cloth banners hanging from the overpasses.
Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation, where Edwin Meese, III is the Ronald Reagan distinguished fellow in public policy and chairman of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
Distributed nationally on the Scripps-Howard wire.