Give Condoleezza Rice credit for candor. Testifying before the 9/11 Commission today, President Bush’s national-security adviser acknowledged that the United States “simply was not on a war footing” at the time the terrorist atrocities of 9/11 were committed.
When should the U.S. government have taken the threat of radical, ideological Islamism seriously? Perhaps as far back as 1979, when our embassy in Tehran was seized by Iranian theocrats; perhaps as far back as 1983 when Hezbollah suicide terrorists slaughtered hundreds of U.S. Marines and diplomats in Beirut; certainly as far back as the attacks over Lockerbie, at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and the USS Cole.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, one American administration after another, Democratic and Republican alike, made gestures, sent signals, and mobilized lawyers armed with subpoenas. The terrorists and their masters could only have been amused. Yes, it would have been brilliant had President Bush entered the Oval Office, looked at this pattern and quickly concluded: “From this moment on, defeating terrorism and the ideologies driving terrorism should be seen as America’s top priority. I want these networks rolled up ASAP. Use whatever means necessary.”
Actually, President Bush came close to saying that. He asked for a policy review and a comprehensive strategy. But even had Dr. Rice–or counterterrorism “czar” Richard Clarke–come up with such a plan within 24 hours, President Bush could not have implemented it during his first eight months in office. The U.S. government simply did not have the means at its disposal. Consider:
‐The FBI’s mission and culture stressed solving crimes, not preventing them.
‐The intelligence community didn’t have good enough intelligence–which led, for example, to Clinton bombing a Sudanese aspirin factory a few years earlier, thinking it was a WMD factory.
‐The Pentagon didn’t know much about terrorists–the Defense Department’s manual on fighting “small wars” was written in 1940.
‐The Foreign Service hadn’t prepared the ground–Pakistan was still cozy with the Taliban and would not have permitted the U.S. to mount acts of war from their territory. Key foreign-service officers were still supporting what they called “moderate” Taliban elements.
‐The Immigration and Naturalization Service was too hopeless a muddle to distinguish between tourists eager to see the Statue of Liberty and terrorists eager to mass murder infidels.
‐And Congress–Democrats, for sure, but also such Republican mandarins as Senators Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar–would have been apoplectic had President Bush attempted to take any of the measures necessary to root out the long-established weeds of terrorism. Imagine the uproar had Bush begun assassinating terrorist leaders around the world or preemptively invaded Afghanistan.
Instead, of course, as Condoleezza Rice made clear today, the new Bush administration did the reasonable thing, the responsible thing, the bipartisan thing: It maintained continuity. It sailed the course set by President Clinton, and it even used key members of the Clinton crew.
George Tenet was retained as director of Central Intelligence. Dick Clarke kept his job as White House terrorism adviser. Others who might have expected to receive pink slips were instead given a pat on the back and told to keep up the good work. A Democrat–Norman Mineta–was named secretary of transportation, the Cabinet position most responsible for airline safety.
President Roosevelt waited until after World War II to put in place a commission to investigate what mistakes led to Pearl Harbor. That was a wise move, but then Roosevelt did not face the kind of hyper-partisanship that plagues America these days. (Washington Post columnist David Broder recently pointed out that when FDR ran for reelection during World War II, he emphasized his record as a war leader. Broder might have added that FDR’s Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, declined to criticize the president in regard to foreign policy during a time of war. It’s almost hard to believe that there was a time when Americans knew the difference between their foreign enemies and their political adversaries.)
Increasingly, it seems the 9/11 Commission is losing its way. Its mission is to learn lessons–not to lay blame. Its mission is to come up with recommendations for a more effective antiterrorism strategy.
Its mission is not to stage a reality-TV show, not to hold an inquisition, not to promote books (and, no doubt, movie deals), not to scold Rice as though she were a student who claimed her dog had eaten her homework.
But that’s what the public is seeing out here in TV-land.
–Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.