- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

Let’s grant Richard Clarke is correct in charging the Bush administration did not appreciate the urgency of the terrorist threat in the eight months leading up to September 11, 2001. But neither did the Clinton administration in the eight years leading up to September 11. And neither did the administrations of President George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.

And during all the years Mr. Clarke served presidents of both parties, it’s apparent he didn’t get it either.

It has been said before but bears repeating: The war in which America and other democratic societies are now engaged did not begin September 11. For America, it may have begun in 1979 when radical Islamists came to power in Iran and went on to seize our embassy in Tehran and hold our diplomats hostage. President Carter’s feckless response taught the militants America can be humbled and, in time, beaten.

Four years later, Hezbollah suicide-bombers slaughtered more than 250 Americans in Beirut. President Reagan responded by pulling out of Lebanon. Another lesson taught: When attacked, flight, not fight, is the likely American response.

With these and similar lessons in mind, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. He believed America would respond only with bluster. Or, he believed, if we did approach the battlefield, we would scamper away at the first sight of blood. As it turned out, U.S. forces quickly crushed Saddam’s military machine. But Saddam was left in power. In exchange, he signed agreements he would defiantly violate for the next 12 years.

President Clinton entered the Oval Office in 1993. Soon after, the World Trade Center was attacked for the first time. Mr. Clinton did not go to New York to underscore the significance of that terrorist atrocity. Nor, it appears, did Mr. Clarke advise him to make such a gesture.

That first WTC attack was prosecuted by law enforcement authorities. Suspects exercised their right to remain silent. Under such rules, there could be no serious investigation of what terrorist organization(s) or government(s) may have been behind the attack.

Keep in mind that al Qaeda wasn’t formed until five years later. Remember that the key conspirator, Ramzi Yousef, entered the U.S. on an Iraqi passport and a second conspirator, Abdul Rahman Yasin, fled to Iraq and was harbored by Saddam — a longtime host of terrorists of many stripes — and where he reportedly cooperated with Saddam’s intelligence.

That does not prove Saddam was involved in the 1993 attack. But then we have proof of hardly anything because in those years neither the president nor the Congress was willing to give the intelligence community the tools and latitude needed to deal with terrorism. What’s more, law enforcement and intelligence agencies were forbidden from working cooperatively to connect dots. If Mr. Clarke offered a proposal to fix these problems, I can’t find it in his book.

What else didn’t Mr. Clarke do? After the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia — another example of American forces high-tailing it out of a country after taking a beating — why didn’t he advise President Clinton to shut down Osama bin Laden’s terrorist training camps in Afghanistan — camps that in the 1990s graduated thousands of skilled mass murders?

Mr. Clarke claims he did urge an assault on al Qaeda in Afghanistan seven years later, after the attack on the USS Cole. But it appears the entire Clinton Cabinet was opposed.

Perhaps most troubling is that Mr. Clarke, the “terrorism czar,” apparently failed to foresee al Qaeda might hijack planes and slam them into buildings, despite what, in retrospect, were ample clues. Had he predicted this type of terrorism, surely he would have recommended President Clinton put sky marshals on airplanes, arm pilots or reinforce cockpit doors — measures even a risk-averse Cabinet might have been willing to adopt.

Based on the testimony coming out of the September 11 hearings, it appears that during the Clinton years efforts were made to prevent terrorists attacks from succeeding. But, clearly, there was no strategy for defeating terrorism.

That’s apparently why President Bush, soon after coming to office, told National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice he was tired of “swatting flies” and ordered her to conduct a “policy review” and craft what Secretary of State Colin Powell described as a “comprehensive strategy.” That document was delivered to the Oval Office too late to stop the September 11 terrorists who had been planning their atrocity for several years and who were already inside the United States.

A strategy for defeating terrorism is now in place. It shifts from treating terrorism as a law enforcement problem to regarding terrorists as enemy combatants fighting an unlawful war. It involves penalizing regimes that sponsor terrorism. It includes the targeted killing of terrorists wherever they are. It deals with the root causes of terrorism: the lack of freedom, democracy, prosperity and opportunity in so many Arab and Muslim countries — not least Iraq.

No doubt, it’s not a perfect plan. And if Richard Clarke or anyone else has better ideas, by all means let’s hear them and discuss them with open minds. But it is counterproductive — and just plain wrong — to let partisanship and politicking interfere with what should be our main task: defeating the terrorists, the ideologies and the movements waging war against all those they have demonized as infidels.

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. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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