Along the Tracks

Monday, October 27, 2003

9/11 Blame Game

Dan Drezner has kept his eye on a debate between National Review’s Rich Lowry and TAPPED’s Matthew Yglesias, offering pithy thoughts of his own and a great discussion in the comments section below his post. Check it out. (Thanks to Tom Maguire.)

I’ve written extensively on this, here at Along the Tracks, in the “dead tree” version found on page 2 of The Leader, and in my Bryan Times column - probably a few other places as well. I haven’t always been entirely consistent on this, to be honest. Yes, I think Clinton’s foreign policy tenure was disastrous, but in many ways, he was following precedents set by Bush I and Reagan - even Carter (hostages, anyone?). As a matter of fact, I noted just last week that we were observing the anniversary of Reagan’s greatest foreign policy blunder: the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and our subsequent withdrawal.

Carter, Reagan and Bush I all leaned toward pulling back when stung with terrorism. Yes, Reagan bombed Libya - and that was good and praiseworthy. But looking at the record honestly, you have to say that was an exception. Reagan’s policy was defensible, perhaps, considering the larger geopolitical issues with which he was grappling (Eastern Europe’s release from the Communist grip, the Soviet Union’s struggle to remain viable), but the Libya bombing was an exception nonetheless. The arms-for-hostages trades which blew up into Iran-Contra were more typical of the Reagan response to terrorism - deal with it, literally. Bush I was apparently a bit overwhelmed with other challenges requiring military action (Panama, Gulf War I) and a plausible threat of military action (the crumbling of the Soviet Union) to do much of anything, either - not really an excuse, but an explanation at least.

Bush I in particular had the opportunity to change strategies in battling terrorism, particularly in the case of the Lockerbie bombing (everyone knew it was Libya’s doing within about 10 minutes) and with the end of the Soviet-Afghan War (when we “abandoned” Afghanistan [scare quotes intended to note we were never seriously committed to Afghanistan, just to bleeding the USSR] to the warlords and, ultimately, bin Laden).

It should be noted, however, that non-state terrorism directly and effectively aimed at Americans and their interests was not a common occurrence until al Qaeda became a going enterprise in the early ‘90s. Prior to that, it was more random and directly state-sponsored, with Libya and Iran dominating the market, and the various Palestinian groups making up the balance of attacks. Al Qaeda had a different objective (a unified Islamic empire, rather than smaller “policy” goals like specific military withdrawals or the elimination of Israel), a different enemy (the West in general - including the new Russia - as the supporter of the present Middle Eastern regimes and the “colonizer” of former Islamic lands in the Mid East, Africa, south-central Europe, the Caucuses, South Asia and Southeast Asia and the Indonesian islands) and a different strategy (well-planned, spectacular attacks, rather than smaller, more frequent operations).

The first World Trade Center bombing and the “Blackhawk Down” ambush in Somalia marked al Qaeda’s ascendance to the forefront of terrorism. Both incidents happened in the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Saddam’s assassination attempt against former President Bush followed shortly thereafter. These were early opportunities to change course - to take the fight directly to this new coalition of terrorists and their protectors. Unfortunately, a) the World Trade Center bombing was handed over to police, not the Pentagon, and even after at least one co-conspirator was given safe harbor in Iraq, no military action was ever contemplated; b) the killing and maiming of U.S. troops in Mogadishu was met with a tail-between-the-legs withdrawal - exactly what bin Laden hoped to achieve; and c) the assassination attempt drew a few cruise missiles aimed at night janitors in Iraqi ministry buildings.

Even after these failures, Clinton had multiple opportunities to answer attacks with overwhelming military force in an effort to end the threat of non-state terrorism by eliminating its sponsors in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Libya. In fact, by my count, Clinton had FIVE more opportunities to begin the War on Terrorism - two major bombings in Saudi Arabia, the African embassy bombings, Saddam’s choice to impede U.N. inspections and the Cole bombing. These are just the “major incidents.” Other attacks and attempted attacks less costly in lives and treasure would have bolstered any case for war.

Ultimately, that’s what this “blame game” discussion is all about: Whether or not war was the right answer. This baloney about Clinton doing more than Bush II did pre-9/11 or vice versa (or Bush I or Reagan, for that matter) is irrelevant - neither did enough, obviously, and many observers (myself included) are unconvinced the “homeland defense” strategy is really accomplishing much post-9/11, let alone “pre.”

What has degraded the terrorists’ capabilities is the systematic elimination of the money, the material support, the camps, the sponsoring regimes and the terrorists themselves. The crux of the recently-leaked Rumsfeld memo is that this degradation is difficult to define and measure. Those of us who support the war measure it in months without a major terror attack on U.S. soil, a reduction in attacks against U.S. interests elsewhere, and a reduction in attacks outside the Islamic world overall.

Those who have opposed the War on Terror are quite understandably unwilling to lay any blame on Bill Clinton, because they would not have favored him doing anything different (i.e., a full-fledged military response). Those of us who believe this war is just and the only way to rid the world of these killers, understandably lay most of the blame on Bill Clinton, because of (what we see as) missed opportunities to begin the war before 3,000 of our fellow Americans were charred and crushed. This “blame game” is based on fundamentally different philosophical points of view, thus no detailing of facts or logical arguments will ever resolve it.

A final statement for “my” side, favoring the war: By bringing the war to the terrorists, we have forced them to play defense - something they are poorly equipped to do. Successful prosecution of the war means keeping the terrorists on their heels, giving them no opportunity to develop and execute attack strategies (another point mentioned in the Rumsfeld memo). Right now, in Iraq, we are in danger of changing posture, from attacking warriors to sitting ducks. I hope Rumsfeld’s memo changes mindsets in the Pentagon and the White House toward more aggressive action - more troops, sweeping through Iraq looking for terrorists; more troops, sweeping along the Afghan-Pakistan border, looking for terrorists; real pressure on Syria and Iran to end their support of terrorists or else; pinpoint efforts across the Islamic world to kill terrorists wherever they hole up. Only this multiple-front, progress-oriented approach will keep the terrorists backing up, slipping, tripping and dying.

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