This past week, many in the chattering classes in the United States devoted their energy to the controversy about ABC's television film "The Path to 9/11."
Partisanship seems to dominate virtually every discussion these days. So it
was no surprise that, just as Republicans have sought to minimize the lack of
attention paid to the terror threat by the Bush administration, so, too, have
Democrats resisted the notion that the failures of the Clinton administration
be highlighted, as the film did with some respects.
With so much attention devoted to wacko conspiracy theories about the 9/11
attacks available on the Internet, and with seemingly more respectable
conversations conducted by our political elites devoted to assigning blame to their
foes and absolving their friends, intelligent discussions of the issue have been
largely crowded out by the din of nonsense.
FEW UNDERSTOOD THE DANGER
That makes for good shouting matches on the all-news cable stations, but like
many Americans, my tolerance for the genre is limited. The painful truth
about 9/11 is that outside of a few experts on the issue such as scholar Daniel
Pipes or journalist Steven Emerson there were precious few writing and
speaking about the danger of Islamic terrorism before Sept. 11, 2001.
And these men were routinely ignored or derided by more influential figures
in the media, academia and halls of power. If the FBI and CIA operatives failed
to gain the attention of their political masters for an all-out commitment to
resist the murderers before that date (a sore point for some viewers of the
ABC film), it was because so few were prepared to speak out about the danger at
Hence, the political support necessary for the drastic increase in
intelligence and military resources devoted to the fight was simply lacking. If
extraordinary measures such as federal forces' eavesdropping on suspected terrorists
are still considered controversial today by some, even more limited measures
aimed at rooting terror front groups were unthinkable prior to 9/11.
And that should lead us all directly to the present day issue of Iran. Just
like Al Qaeda, which, as many have observed, "hid in plain sight" from the
view of the West, Iran's drive to produce nuclear weapons has been anything but a
When not denying the Holocaust or threatening to destroy Israel, it's loopy
leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has openly bragged about the
possibility. The Tehran regime even held a bizarre public ceremony back in April
with costumed dancers to commemorate its latest step toward processing uranium
in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
And Iran is not only working on a nuclear capability, they are also striving
for the acquisition of missiles that will deliver such weapons not only to
Israeli targets (the Iranians presumed first target) but to Western capitals,
too. As former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in speeches at
several stops in Philadelphia last week, there is no comparison between the
Iranian situation and that which confronted the West prior to the invasion of Iraq.
Unlike then, "we're not guessing" about what they've got, "we know."
The prospect of a regime run by Islamist fundamentalist Shiites gaining such
a weapon and their ability to use it is one that ought to scare every sensible
person in the West.
Some experts tell us that we must learn to live with a nuclear Iran. They
have a point because unless the United States and its allies start acting as if
this really matters, it's only a matter of time before Tehran succeeds in its
But the problem with the notion that this prospect can be lived with lies in
the difference between past nuclear threats and this one. A nuclear Soviet
Union was certainly a dangerous foe. But as Netanyahu pointed out, the Soviets
would never do anything that endangered their own survival. Thus, whenever
disputes between the Soviet Union and the West went to the brink, Moscow was
generally as interested as Washington in edging away from the precipice.
But the notion that we can be just as confident about deterring the mullahs
of Tehran is highly dubious. Unlike the masters of the "evil empire,"
Ahmadinejad and his religious mentors buy into a ideology that prizes celestial
martyrdom, not terrestrial conquest.
In addition to hoping to generate the return of a "Twelfth Imam" a Shiite
messiah some in his circle have already made plain that even if Iran were to
suffer a nuclear response from Israel after a strike on the Jewish state,
they would still "win" since more of them would be left, and those who died
would be happy martyrs.
While such "Dr. Strangelove" scenarios seem to be more science fiction than
realpolitik to us, to the Islamist mindset the prospect of the hedonist
rewards of martyrdom is not the stuff of satire. It is real, and the prospect of it
coming to pass is no longer theoretical.
What can America do about it? There are no easy answers.
A U.N. resolution on the issue (if indeed such a resolution can be passed) is
a must, but anyone waiting for our allies to enact tough sanctions on Tehran
and making them stick is kidding themselves.
Relying on Israel to take out Iranian nuclear facilities as they did with
Iraq in 1981 is also a nonstarter.
So at some point, whether in the last years of the George W. Bush
administration or in the term of his successor, an American president is going to
face his people with the distasteful proposition of either letting the
lunatics go nuclear or to take drastic action that might include military force.
Unless the Iranians have a very unlikely change of heart, the United States
whether it is led by Republicans or a Democrat will have to swallow hard
and act to prevent an event that has the capability of making 9/11 look as
insignificant in scale to us as the then-shocking 1915 sinking of the liner
Lusitania by a German U-boat does now.
That president's ability to face up to that challenge will depend on how
ready the American public and its leaders have made themselves for the prospect.
If a "failure of imagination" was one of the prime causes of the lack of
prevention of 9/11, as the federal commission appointed to probe the issue
ascertained, then let there be no doubt that a similar inability to imagine the
consequences of a nuclear Iran will be far more serious.
So rather than worrying about whether it was George W. Bush or Bill Clinton
along with their respective wise men and flunkies who are more to blame for
9/11, it would behoove us all to think about the next catastrophe waiting
down the road. Now is exactly the time to start imagining it.