Politics & Policy

Retroactive Valor

The Democratic party's shoulda-woulda-coulda strategy.

Americans hungry for a mistake-proof party uncompromisingly resolute on national security now have found one–the pre-9/11 Democrats. Created in hindsight and forged in recrimination, the pre-9/11 Democrats are unwilling to let any obstacle stand in the way of their defense of the American homeland. Who knew contemporary Democrats could so readily combine the toughest aspects of J. Edgar Hoover and Douglas MacArthur?

The pre-9/11 Democrats, as portrayed by their reaction to the work of the 9/11 Commission, are not plagued by niggling civil-liberty concerns. They were willing prior to 9/11–or so they imply now–to brush aside the restrictions on cooperation between the CIA and FBI that had been imposed by liberals throughout the course of three decades. Constitutional worries about infringing on the rights of criminal suspects in the United States? Don’t be silly. And give the CIA more money and authority to carry out assassinations and other covert actions while you’re at it.

The pre-9/11 Democrats don’t care about planning or diplomacy. They were willing to leap into a war in Central Asia on a moment’s notice–as soon as President Bush took office–without bothering to set a careful strategy or consult seriously with allies. That might take time. They were willing to preempt a threat while it was still gathering strength and before its murderous potential had become clear.

The pre-9/11 Democrats are ethnically insensitive. They were willing to institute a security lockdown at U.S. airports, with presumably a particular emphasis on scrutiny of young Arab men. They were willing to engage in sweeping ethnic profiling at U.S. flight schools and crack down on lax immigration policies. Ethnic pressure groups be damned.

Finally, the pre-9/11 Democrats are perfectly willing to act on sketchy intelligence. The vaguest and most unconfirmed intelligence reports were enough, prior to 9/11, to prompt sweeping security measures and military strikes overseas.

If this seems out of character, there is a reason. The image of the pre-9/11 Democrats created during the past several weeks is a fantasy, the opportunistic canard of a party only willing to be hardheaded in retrospect and when it serves the cause of damaging Bush. The actual pre-9/11 Democrats have a strong resemblance to the post-9/11 Democrats–hostile to necessary law-enforcement powers, allergic to military force, politically correct on any question touching ethnicity and obsessed with not alienating any international actor who can remotely be considered an ally.

The inconvenient fact for the hawk poseurs is that the record of pre-9/11 Democrats is well known. They ran the Clinton administration. The Clinton team, which we now are supposed to believe was chockfull of officials desperately worried about al Qaeda, couldn’t bring itself to aid the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance or push Pakistan to cut loose the Taliban, let alone directly confront civil libertarians here at home.

Consider the 9/11 commissioners themselves. Jamie Gorelick, one of the panel’s most partisan Democrats, was a trusted aide to Janet Reno at the Justice Department in the 1990s. Gorelick is now scandalized that the FBI wasn’t more aggressive in hunting down suspected terrorists in the United States. But the Reno Justice Department systematically hampered the FBI’s surveillance powers and obstructed its efforts to root out terrorist financing, creating the very rules and culture that so frustrate Gorelick.

Who can be fooled by the Democrats’ retroactive valor? Even after 9/11, Democrats hate not just the way Bush has applied his doctrine of preemption, but the very idea of it. They excoriate the Patriot Act, which has knocked down some of the barriers between the CIA and the FBI and loosened other restrictions on federal law enforcement. They question immigration crackdowns and generally fellow-travel with the American Civil Liberties Union.

All of this is more important than the current bout of shoulda-woulda-coulda. The war on terror can’t be fought in retrospect, nor can Islamic terrorism be wiped out by hindsight. The closest thing to the imaginary pre-9/11 Democrats are the actual existing post-9/11 Republicans.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c)2003 King Features Syndicate

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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