Jewish World Review April 16, 2004 / 26 Nissan, 5764
The high price of hindsight
National security has been the core of President Bush's appeal to the public since 9/11. So it's no wonder that the attack on the Bush record by Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism adviser to four administrations, has inspired such a furious response. But the issue is too grave to be met by assaults on Clarke's integrity or by his attacks on Bush. It's the evidence that counts.
Clarke has two substantive criticisms. First, the new administration was slow to come up with a plan for dealing with the terrorist threat before 9/11. Second, the decision to go to war against Iraq has undermined the war on terrorism.
Let's take the first charge. The Bush foreign policy team came into office focusing on those powers capable of disruption on a grand scale, hence its concern with missile defense still a relevant issue. China was a long-term strategic challenge that was highlighted by the collision of a Chinese fighter plane with an American spy plane just months into the new administration.
"Principals." Planning to counter threats from nonstate actors was not at the top of the agenda. But, as Condoleezza Rice testified, there was nothing unusual about that. Every new administration needs time to organize its conduct of policy. Adapting bumper-sticker nostrums to the complex realities of the world simply cannot be accomplished overnight. The Bush team had to develop its own antiterrorism policy, since none was transferred from the Clinton administration. Bush's key advisers, "the principals," signed off on the new policy on Sept. 4, 2001. In fact, as Clarke has acknowledged, the Bush administration had developed a broader strategy that, among other things, called for the rapid elimination of al Qaeda rather than its slower erosion. The president, in fact, had already authorized a fivefold increase in CIA funding to pursue al Qaeda.
It is also true that the American people had little awareness of the threat of stateless terrorist networks fired by religious fanaticism. It was almost inconceivable that such groups could coordinate the suicide of 19 young zealots and murder nearly 3,000 innocents when we had not been attacked on our homeland since Pearl Harbor. Nor did the American media, by and large, evince much interest in terrorism. After President Clinton fired cruise missiles at al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, bombed a factory in Sudan, and bombed Iraq again, many Republicans and much of the press dismissed these as an attempt to "wag the dog" and distract the public from the Monica Lewinsky affair. To his credit, Clinton continued speaking out about terrorism and the need to reorganize the government to counter it, underscoring the terrorists' "increasing access to . . . chemical and biological weapons." His words, sadly, had little effect. Even serious warnings that Americans in large numbers could die on American soil, such as that issued by the Hart-Rudman Commission, were ignored by most of the leading newspapers and magazines.
Success, it has been said, has many fathers. But so does failure, and that is certainly the case here. No leader in either the Clinton or the Bush administration could have credibly supported Clarke's urgings to hunt down terrorists in Afghanistan and destroy their training camps prior to the 9/11 attacks. Now, he laments, we have to hunt them down "country by country." True, but this applies to the Clinton presidency, too, when Clarke was the top counterterrorism official but was unable to persuade the administration to take more vigorous action against al Qaeda. Clarke suggests the Clinton administration was more in earnest but was distracted by crises like the one in the Middle East. The same distraction defense can be made by Bush.
Clarke's complaint about the lack of urgency in the first eight months of the Bush administration is undermined by the fact that the government did go to heightened alert levels in July and August 2001 and by the fact that he refused to attend the National Security Council staff meetings chaired by Rice, where he could have conveyed his concerns. But Clarke's most revealing testimony may have come in response to former Sen. Slade Gorton's question: "Assuming that the recommendations that you made on January 25, 2001 . . . had all been adopted say, on January 26, 2001, is there the remotest chance that it would have prevented 9/11?" Clarke replied grimly: "No." That simple utterance speaks volumes about the import of Clarke's allegations. Clarke's answer is consistent with the common-sense verdict of the American people about why 9/11 occurred and explains why opinion polls have not shifted, despite the exploitation of Clarke's testimony by the Democrats. The 9/11 terrorists were already in America. The FBI seemed unable to detect the plot and structurally unable to pass along whatever it did know, either to its leaders or to other agencies of the government.
The issue is not who knew about the intentions of radical Islamic terrorists to kill innocent civilians but how much could have been done about it before the public mood changed on 9/11. Until then, we buried our heads in the sand. That's the genesis of the phrase "September 11 changed everything." It transformed America's willingness to respond to threats against it. As Clarke himself pointed out, "This country . . . requires body bags to make really tough decisions." After 9/11, Bush declared war on terrorism and terrorists, and we began to wage a covert war against al Qaeda and an overt war against the Taliban and Iraq.
Clarke's second contention is that the war on Iraq undermined the war on terrorism, producing more jihadists and giving them more targets closer to home. But how prudent would it have been to leave Iraq to simmer? The presumption in Clarke's charge is that terrorists, in pursuit of their program of mass murder, would refrain from conspiring with enemies who could have given them access to weapons of mass destruction.
Rogues. The crucial Bush decision was not to wait to find out. This decision was based, correctly, on the recognition that we are now facing a group of religious terrorists consumed by a culture of death, mostly from the Arab world, in a world without clear battle lines. Tragically, we must now assume that there could, one day, be a catastrophic attack if terrorists get access to weapons of mass death. We must also assume that the most likely suppliers of such weapons would be the rogue states that the Bush administration has targeted.
Going into Iraq was a key step in the fight against Arab radicalism because Iraq was at the core of Arab rejectionism of, and hostility to, the West. Saddam Hussein represented a threat that was not based exclusively on his presumed possession of banned weapons but on his outsized ambitions, his unrestrained tyranny, his radicalism, and his hatred of the West. CIA Director George Tenet wrote to the Senate on Oct. 7, 2002, of "senior-level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade" and of "credible reporting" revealing that "Iraq had provided training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs" a capability that Iraq retained until Saddam's overthrow.
The Bush rationale to go beyond a narrow focus on terrorist networks to the broader strategy of confronting rogue states involved in terrorism had historical support. Many atrocities, like the 1983 attack on U.S. military barracks in Beirut, were carried out by groups created and supported by rogue states like Syria and Iran. Iraq, meanwhile, was providing sanctuary to the one remaining culprit who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, one Abdul Rahman Yasin.
Remember, too, that before Iraq, the United States invaded Afghanistan, another rogue state, dispossessing Osama bin Laden of his training bases, provided courtesy of the Taliban. Bush reversed our relations with Pakistan, long considered to be a major danger because of its possession of nuclear weapons and its domestic instability, and Pakistan became a major supporter in our war against terrorism. So addressing the issue of rogue states, including Iraq, was consistent with a successful Bush strategy.
So much for the past. What is critical now is the future. Since 9/11, Bush has demonstrated the courage and leadership to continue to take the war to the terrorists. Bush has recognized that the most important lesson of the attacks is the need for pre-emption. We must deal with terrorist threats before they fully materialize. Everyone now favors our liberation of Afghanistan, but let's not underestimate the political courage it took to attempt that. Many were the predictions that we would be bogged down and beaten as the British and Soviets before us had been. Bush took the risk of warfare against the Taliban and al Qaeda, and succeeded in toppling a regime whose raison d'ętre was the sponsorship of terrorism. The overheated allegations about the Bush administration's "obsession" with Iraq ignore the fact that state-sponsored terrorism remains a key element of the terrorist threat that will continue to confront America.
As for al Qaeda, Tenet has indicated that we have already taken out as much as two thirds of its leadership. We have put them on the run, stripped them of their top managers, disrupted their financial networks, and made them unable to direct terrorist operations with any degree of control. Still, cutting off the snake's head has left a group of regional terrorist networks capable of operating autonomously, so there can be no letup in our efforts, no diminishing our vigilance. The war, regrettably, is far from over. Winning will require not just fortitude and determination but creativity and patience. Fortunately, the American instinct, unlike that of the Spanish government, is to confront those who espouse and enable terrorism rather than to appease them, while American values support democratization as a key to eliminating terrorism over the long term.
We would all like to turn back the clock. But that's not only impossible, it's beside the point. What's important now is the energy, forcefulness, and clarity with which Bush has engaged his administration in the war against terrorism since 9/11.
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