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Expect many more unsettling alerts

Published: Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

A full generation of Americans has come of age since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union late in 1991. Those who lived that nearly half-century of tensions, with its threats of mutual nuclear destruction, tend to mistakenly recall a tidy geography: The West, chiefly the U.S. but also its NATO allies, poised decade after decade in readiness to combat the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies to the east.

Today’s menace from al-Qaida and its associates doesn’t translate into the same existential fears: The USSR had, and Russia surely still has, nuclear warheads aimed at us. Al-Qaida doesn’t even have a source of such weapons. Not yet, anyway – although needy regimes of North Korea or Iran surely would help if they could.

But the current alert that has provoked the U.S. to close a score of overseas diplomatic outposts is a useful reminder that those who wish to harm this nation and its interests are scheming eagerly, right before our very ears: Behold an America now debating the reach of its surveillance networks, taking precautions because of intercepts gathered by its surveillance networks.

Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much these days, but they aren’t bickering over the alert: No one on Capitol Hill rose to disagree Sunday after U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the current peril is “the most serious threat that I’ve seen in the last several years.”

Nor have we heard accusations from two often noisy camps, dovish Democrats and isolationist Republicans, that this alert is much alarmism about nothing.

We don’t pretend to know what plot or plots may be in the works, only that Washington sources say the clues emerged from communiques between evidently the two top al-Qaida leaders, one in Pakistan and one on the Arabian Peninsula. Nor do we require that someone tell us every detail before we take this alert seriously. For a dozen years now, U.S. intel officials have done a good job of calibrating dangerous chatter and distinguishing it from small talk.

That said, we wish President Barack Obama hadn’t found so many occasions in the past year to distance his White House from a lengthy and necessary war on terror. There has been something too soothing in his suggestions that al-Qaida is on the run, that the U.S. can execute foreign engagements with airstrikes and drones, and his May 23 declaration at National Defense University that, “This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

Those three sentences suggest that the war on terror will end when Washington decides it will end. That’s a hopeful show of self-reliance, but one that al-Qaida seems in no hurry to abide. Obama, who turned 52 on Sunday, shouldn’t be surprised if the war on terror – a phrase he dislikes – outlives him.

Americans are averse to perpetual conflict; the 12-year war on terror is noteworthy in part because it followed the decadelong and lulling “holiday from history” that preceded 9/11.

Trouble is, that decade is notorious for Washington’s refusal to admit al-Qaida’s growing strength, and to try to exterminate its leadership by means no more ambitious than the occasional ill-directed cruise missile.

Had our leaders been on their game in those years – particularly after the 1993 attempt to bring down the World Trade Center in New York City and the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa – Osama bin Laden might have been dead for much longer than these past 27 months. As the 9/11 Commission memorably put it in 2004: well before 19 hijackers boarded airliners, “The system was blinking red.”

Evidently the system again is blinking red. We expect it to blink red again, often.

So stay vigilant with your own personal alerts, never forgetting the imperative so visible in Manhattan and other vulnerable locales: If you see something, say something.

As for wishing away the war on terror – for trusting that one side of such a conflict can declare it over – don’t fool yourself.

The Cold War, remember, lasted 44 years. And in the 22 years since relentless American resolve brought that conflict to an end, neither side is letting down its guard.

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