- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2003

Al Qaeda’s war on America didn’t start September 11, 2001. However, September 11 was the day al Qaeda’s gangsters escalated their unholy jihad by committing mass murder in the land of the free.

Prior to September 11, America did its usual thing. No, America wasn’t asleep, not exactly. America has more eyes and ears and brains probing and puzzling over the planet than any other nation or organization. Information, however, does not automatically translate into an accurate understanding of a clever enemy’s plans, much less effective counteraction.

America wasn’t asleep, but it was hampered by our wonderful weaknesses. Americans don’t want to be distracted from their pursuit of happiness. The American government is designed to react slowly. America separates more than legislative, judicial and executive powers. America cuts and dices its intelligence and police forces so power is diminished. Civilian control, congressional finagling and good old bureaucratic inertia keep the military domesticated. President George Bush’s request last Sunday for more cash to support Iraq is this system at work. Congress has the purse. Despite the fevered prattle of conspiracy theorists, the say-so of a few doesn’t take America to war and certainly doesn’t keep it there.

In the previous decade, 1993’s World Trade Center attack failed to sell the American public on fighting terrorism. In 1998, Bill Clinton, reacting to al Qaeda’s destruction of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, declared war on terror.

Mr. Clinton’s “war” fizzled. Osama bin Laden, however, meant it when, on Feb. 23, 1998, he declared, “We — with God’s help — call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money. … ”

After perusing Congress’ joint inquiry on September 11 (852 pages long), I conclude the Clinton administration did put new emphasis on counterterror. That’s a plus. It also appears that “new emphasis” was not sustained by either executive or congressional leadership. That’s a devastating minus.

After the second anniversary of September 11, let me examine what I wrote well before the horror, when something could have been done to prevent it. In a column penned after Mr. Clinton’s declaration (The San Antonio Express-News, Aug. 27, 1998), I wrote: “The war against international terror is one of the toughest America has ever faced. … Combating Terror International is not the most threatening conflict in terms of national survival. No, it is not a war that — as did the first days after Pearl Harbor or even Iraq’s attack on Kuwait — requires decisive leadership in a rapidly developing global crisis.”

September 11 says I got that wrong. I did consider terrorist nukes. I helped wargame a “suicide Cessna” nuclear attack in the late 1980s, but frankly, the scenario smacked of Hollywood depravity, not defense planning guidance. We did not see the audacity of September 11 linked to the cult of martyrdom. The audacity of slamming jets into skyscrapers, al Qaeda’s well-conceived network operation, and the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons changed my evaluation, to make combating terror the most important conflict. September 11 was a window on the next escalation, a nuclear holocaust.

But here’s the next paragraph from 1998: “War against terror does require leadership that is consistent, resolute, persevering, relentless and personally courageous. A counterterror war, waged against calculating radicals such as Osama bin Laden, requires forceful and steady diplomacy. Such a war will play out in the globe’s cruelest shadows, where targets are poorly defined, immediate goals fuzzy and mistakes a near certainty.”

September 11 and subsequent events say that is, unfortunately, quite right. This is also right: September 11, 2001, was gut-check time. Sept. 11, 2003, is also gut-check time. For everyone who values liberty, the pursuit of victory must continue to supersede the pursuit of happiness.

The “quagmirists” kvetching about Iraq’s hard scrabble still fail to appreciate the threat that emerged in 1993’s World Trade Center bombing then killed again in 1998 and 2000 (USS Cole), and on September 11.

A “new Iraq” will dramatically improve the lives of millions in the Middle East and seed peace. To defeat al Qaeda and lay the groundwork for 21st century peace requires the American people to persevere.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.



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