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Learning from 9/11 

by Robert Herold


Condoleeza Rice will come before the 9/11 Commission with a fully prepared and rehearsed revisionist script. She will say that the Bush administration didn't underestimate Al Qaeda and that terrorism was high on their agenda. She will say that Bush and Co. did not use 9/11 as an excuse to invade Iraq. Absolutely not. Oh, maybe Paul Wolfowitz brought it up once or twice, she might have to admit. She will assure us that the Bush administration was working feverishly on this threat for the eight months before 9/11. And finally, expect her to say, again, that Richard Clarke, the nation's top terrorism fighter, really wasn't "in the loop."


We can only hope that the committee asks pointed questions in response. A few come to mind:


"Dr. Rice, if you appreciated the Al Qaeda threat, why didn't you act immediately on Mr. Clarke's proposals, which you eventually adopted anyway?


"Dr. Rice, if terrorism was high on your agenda, why didn't you act immediately on the Hart-Rudmann recommendations for a Homeland Security Agency? Those recommendations came to you in February of 2001 and the Bush administration ignored them until after 9/11, when all of a sudden the president adopted them as his own.


"Dr. Rice, Sandy Berger advised you, as he was leaving the post you now hold, that Al Qaeda needed to go to the top of your priority list. If you really did heed Mr. Berger's advice, why did you do nothing over the next eight months but, in your own words, plan?


"Dr. Rice, assuming that President Bush was, as you have said, consumed by the terrorist threat, how could he afford to spend the entire month of August -- just before 9/11 -- vacationing on his ranch?"





It's safe to predict that the commission won't get around to dealing with the real "elephants in the room," and that's too bad. There are important lessons to be learned if the country will face them.


The commission should start by examining the poisonous relationship that existed, from 1994 on, between the Republican Congress and President Clinton. That year, Newt Gingrich brought to Washington, D.C., the most partisan, ideological and petty bunch in memory. We should expect Congress to consider national security policies proposed by the president carefully, not use such issues as weapons to pound their political enemies. Gingrich and Co., having learned from their petty but effective attack on Speaker Tom Foley over the silly Congressional Post Office "scandal," did just this. They sought not to advise and provide consent but to diminish the executive's powers. Unfortunately, it worked, resulting in a failure to take terrorist threats head-on.


We recall the time and distraction wasted on such trivial matters as "Travelgate?" You remember: How dare Mrs. Clinton fire those travel agents? And how many years did the ever-prurient Ken Starr devote to "Whitewater" and in the end prove nothing? Indeed, had Bill Clinton tried to pull off what Dick Cheney did with his oil industry cronies and hunting trips with Justice Scalia, the Ann Coulter crowd of right wing, leggy, blonde bimbos would never have let up -- after all, they didn't and over far less.


The Republicans in Congress also failed to act in a statesmanlike way when the Clinton administration determined to go into the Balkans. Aside from a few John McCains, most Republicans reverted to their traditional isolationism. (Remember the "No Nation Building" plank in the 2000 Bush platform?) When Clinton finally did launch strikes against Al Qaeda, he was berated for trying to "change the subject." In hindsight, however, it was the GOP that did its best to see that the subject was changed from fighting terrorism to Monica Lewinsky.





For the sake of discussion, let us assume that Clinton, by late 1997, had determined that Al Qaeda had become a serious threat to the U.S. With prospects for bipartisan support of so nonpartisan an issue as protecting the homeland, perhaps he could have gone to Congress and requested support for a declaration similar to the one that Bush got following 9/11. We can only imagine the political fallout of such a request, and maybe that's why he never asked.


The record is clear: From 1994 through 2000, with a few notable exceptions in the Senate (Richard Lugar, John McCain, Chuck Hagel), the Republicans did little else but exploit partisan advantage. Because Clinton, on the domestic front, had managed to pilfer a number of their favorite issues, they ganged up with even more of a vengeance on the national security front. The conclusion is unavoidable: The sharp partisanship of the '90s made the 9/11 disaster much more likely.


But as they say, there is plenty of blame to go around, and Bill Clinton bears his share. From 1992 until 1994, he wasted an enormous amount of political capital on gays in the military and his clumsy effort to come up with a national health care system. Largely because of these failures (and Gingrich's effective demagoguery), he lost his majority in Congress in 1994, but somehow managed to win reelection in 1996. He began his second term knowing that he faced a hostile Congress and without much political gas in the tank. Then, he squandered what gas he had left on Monica Lewinsky. Call it hubris, call it juvenile conduct -- call it what you will, but by not exercising self-restraint, Clinton further weakened his presidency, which also contributed to making 9/11 more of a possibility.


Institutions matter. So does the common good -- the things that bind us as Americans rather than as Democrats, Republicans or Independents. If you savage our institutions and put partisanship ahead of the common good, you put the country in harm's way. Richard Clarke was right on when he told families of the victims of 9/11 that, "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you."





Publication date: 04/08/04

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