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President needs to provide leadership in ailing economy

A weekend flight to the New York City area via Washington, D.C. was an eye opener. I set off alarms when I went through the metal detector. After taking my shoes away, they came back carrying a paper clip. (Don't ask.) There were a few other short delays, but I'm not complaining about security. It is good enough to catch people with box cutters. The message to passengers was clear: be afraid, be very afraid. And I must admit I am worried, but not of another event like last year and I'm not losing any sleep over an attack in the United States by Al Qaeda.

They say military planners are always studying how to fight the last war, and it's certainly true here. If four young men of Middle Eastern descent were to board a commercial jetliner these days they would get a world-class screening and probably a background check before the plane left the ground. If more than one got up from his seat during flight, it would be a race between the plain-clothes armed air marshals and the heroic passengers to see who reaches them first. The chance of a successful high-jacking is extremely remote these days.

Someone will need to demonstrate how the more draconian policies concerning arrest and extra-judicial detention of suspected terrorists was and is necessary. Good police work has been doing the job. Major suspected high-level members of the Al Qaida network have been arrested with cooperative police efforts involving American and Pakistani police. Suspected criminals have been killed or arrested in the Philippines and others in places like Jordan and Germany. Their communications have "gone dark," according to one U.S. spokesman, and people suspected of cooperating or sympathizing with them are being tracked and analyzed around the world.

One result of arrests in the United States is we now know U.S. security forces are tracking the money, emails, mail, telephone calls and travel agendas of people known or suspected of training in Osama bin Laden's paramilitary camps or of consorting with those who did. We know that computers have been captured which held names of recruits and potential recruits, manuals for operations, telephone numbers, addresses, and so forth. We know our security forces have been paying people for information. And we know that since 9/11 many of these leads have been followed up, especially in the United States. Some of the arrests may prove to be over-cautionary, but the Bush administration has achieved a shining success in doing everything possible to disrupt actions of criminals with plans to kill civilians.

Afghanistan's new president Hamid Karzai reports the Taliban have disappeared from that country and are no longer an organized force. He thinks Osama bin Laden is dead or seriously wounded. This bit of optimism comes from the man who could justifiably be nominated as Most Likely Head of State to Be Assassinated in the world. If he's not much worried about bin Laden and the Taliban, why should I be? I'm not, but like I said, I am worried, very worried.

The Bush Administration has its attention, and most everyone else's, focused on war with Iraq. Although Saddam Hussein is an insufferable irritant, there is good reason to believe that the chances he could do anything dramatic, especially in the United States, are very small. What threatens the quality of life of most Americans is the prospect of a declining economy. The war on terrorism happened to coincide with the greatest crisis of faith in the financial markets in more than seventy years. Broad sections of investors are viewing stock analysts at some of the oldest and most prestigious firms as nothing but snake oil salesmen of the criminal variety. Meanwhile, the value of the stock market is plummeting, peoples' savings for their children's college educations and their retirements are shrinking or disappearing, and there is a growing disillusionment with a government which did not protect them.

When President Bush came to office, there were several ideas associated with his new administration and among these were retreat from international cooperation and commitments, deregulation of industry, review of environmental commitments, a disdain for nation building and a leaning toward privatization of social security. Since then we have discovered that international cooperation is a very good thing if one is to capture or neutralize international criminals, and the United States is rejoining UNESCO and seems, however reluctantly at first, committed to helping to rebuild Afghanistan. The retreat from leadership in global environmental affairs has done and continues to do untold damage to America's prestige abroad. The troubles on the stock exchange made the nation cautious about privatization of social security and sparked a demand for more regulation of industry.

As I said, I am worried. I worry that the war on Iraq will leave room for too little attention to the economy. Investors run on emotions, and fear causes capital flight. That takes value from the market, and soon enough we have shrinking job numbers and sinking stock prices. Congress has passed laws intended to correct recent abuses, but these laws have few teeth. The country needs leadership not only to catch and deal with the executives and stock analysts (and there are legions of them) who did wrong, but, more importantly, to ensure that such things don't go wrong any time soon again. The President needs to provide that leadership. The ideology of deregulation of the market, a mantra of many conservatives since the Reagan times, means the government should do nothing. That's exactly the wrong direction to go.

It was New York's Attorney General Eliot Spitzer who got the ball rolling with prosecutions against some of the biggest and most visible public figures in the current scandal, and the Securities and Exchanges Commission has started to move in the same direction. It's a start, but the President's undivided attention needs to be focused on the economy. He will need to abandon some cherished ideologies of the recent past and to put forward plans and actions intended to bring back investor confidence and turn things around. Saddam tried to assassinate Bush I nine years ago. He can wait. The economy cannot.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.