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Jewish World Review March 20, 2002 / 7 Nisan, 5762

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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10 minutes with ... Bill Bennett


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Support at home for America's war against terrorism remains high and shows little sign of flagging. But conservative William J. Bennett, the former education and drug czar, founder of the Internet-based K-12 school and author of best-sellers such as "The Book of Virtues," has thrown his considerable intellectual, rhetorical and moral heft into the war effort.

The public policy group he co-directs, Empower America, has created "Americans for Victory Over Terrorism" to fan support of the fight against terrorism and to influence public opinion about the nasty nature of terrorist organizations and the deadly threat posed by radical Islam.

Bennett says AVOT will take this battle of ideas to the media and into enemy-held territory - college campuses, where he and others plan to hold public debates with professional America-haters and the relatively few critics of the war.

I talked to Bennett Thursday by telephone from his offices in Washington, D.C.

Q: With polls showing near unanimous support for the war against terrorism, why are you so worried that the public will lose its resolve?

A: Well, this is the point at which to put down a marker, because we don't know what the future is going to be. Norman Podhoretz pointed out recently that there was more unanimity for Vietnam at the beginning than this war - less dissent, let's put it that way.

Look, you're seeing some of the support starting to crack already. You've heard Jimmy Carter criticize the president on the "axis of evil." You've seen people in the Senate come on pretty hard. I just read Mr. (Robert) Kuttner, the editor of American Prospect, say he didn't know which was more frightening, George Bush or al-Qaida. University professors are out there.

Yeah, public opinion is there. And I think the memories of 9/11 are still pretty strong. But bear in mind, we're probably in a struggle that can last longer than World War II, as my colleague Jim Woolsey said the other day at our press conference. So let's be ready.

Q: What do Americans need to be reminded of most in this war?

A: Certainly not love of country. That's obviously very clear. Amore patria is, to many of us, surprisingly strong, remarkably strong. But I think they need to be reminded about how complicated this is. This is not like a one-front or two-front war. It's got a lot of fronts. There are some days we will be fighting this war and we won't even know it.

Secretary (of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld said in a briefing I went to, you wouldn't believe the amount of stuff that is going on that we can't even talk about because of compromising security interests and other things; the stuff they're finding in computers and so on.

Q: What will the cost be to American citizens at home? You're a conservative, an advocate of limited government, are you worried about increasing government police and surveillance powers?

A: I'm not worried about the police and surveillance powers, except to the degree that one must always be prepared and must keep your eyes open and complain when things get too intrusive.

What I've found most American citizens talking about is not that they think things have become too intrusive or repressive, but that a lot of things seem kind of dumb. That some of the airport security seems not careful, but kind of bureaucratic.

The issues have to be engaged of how much security we need, how much intrusiveness we need. And we've got to take up issues like racial profiling. I don't mind being searched, but I have been searched every single daggone time. My shoes have been taken off every single time.

If I have to go through that, that's fine. But then I think some good sense ought to be employed here and people who are from the Middle East ought to be stopped on as least as regular a basis. It's a simple fact of common sense.

Q: Your group's full-page ad in the New York Times said you want to clue everyone in on "the nature and threat of radical Islam." How do you distinguish between "regular" Islam and radical Islam?

A: Well, radical Islam is what did 9/11. Regular Islam is what is either undecided, or quiet or appalled by what happened on 9/11, and unfortunately, it's all three.

There is a peaceful Islam, to which there are a lot of adherents. There's an indifferent Islam. And there's a "hasn't-found-its-voice-yet" Islam. I'm concerned with that latter category, which I think is an awful lot of people.

There's probably a fourth category, which is not willing to take the risks of the 9-11 people, but very happy to applaud it. That's a lot of people. I can't put a number on it. I've asked the experts, (Steven) Emerson and other people, and those people have said it is 100 million people in the Arab world and elsewhere.

That may be true. But suffice it to say, there's not enough of a pullback by the center of Islam of those on the edges to satisfy me or make me feel comfortable or safe.

Q: Is it possible to be critical of America's Middle East policy without weakening our resolve? Do we have to support our current Middle Eastern policy totally?

A: I think we should change it. I don't think we should call for a Palestinian state. I think that's a mistake. We're talking about Israel and the Palestinians as the old "two scorpions in a bottle." I think that's a mistake. I don't see how we can defend our efforts against al-Qaida and criticize Israel's efforts against Arafat.

What somebody has to do is take out a full-page ad showing all the things Arafat has said to his troops, not in English, over the last three weeks. That would make, I think, very bracing reading.

Q: The ad in the New York Times said that America was "a target not because of anything we have done, but because of who we are." You don't have to be a professional America-hater to notice that bin Laden has been saying for years that America was deserving of attack because of our Mideast policies - whether it was our perceived imbalance toward Israel or the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Isn't there some credibility in these arguments for the reason terrorists attacked us?

A: It could be an immediate cause, or an efficient cause, to use the Aristotelian language. But I think the final cause, the ultimate cause, here is hatred of the United States, because we represent a better, more virtuous, more open - and it grinds them to no end - more successful society. We're better and we're more successful. They are what they are. Their doctrines issue in the kind of countries they have, and so do ours.

Q: How long do you think the war on terrorism is going to last?

A: I don't know, but I'd guess five, six, seven years.

Q: When will we know that we have won it?

A: I don't know. I guess when it's real quiet when I don't know. I'm not smart enough to give you an answer to that question, but there will be people who will know. If we have a good, revitalized CIA, we'll know.



JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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03/05/02: 10 minutes with ... Rich Lowry
02/26/02: 10 minutes with ... Tony Snow
02/12/02: Has Soldier of Fortune gone soft?

© 2002, Bill Steigerwald