April 16, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Outside View: Terrorism timeout

Who won the debate over former counter-terror chief Richard Clarke's testimony before the Sept. 11 Commission? Clarke? The president? The Republicans? Kerry? Actually, the only real winner, in the sense that there can be any, is Osama bin Laden.

Somewhere, probably deep inside the bowels of a cave, bin Laden is chuckling over how America can turn against itself in search of an explanation for how he and his fellow terrorists pulled off a major act of terror. Other than giving him something to laugh about, nothing of any practical value will be accomplished by the traditional Washington blame game that now engulfs the city.

It's as the kindergarten teachers say: We all need a timeout.

First, the argument that any U.S. president -- from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush -- did not recognize transnational terrorism as a grave security concern is ridiculous.

In 1987, L. Paul Bremer, at the time Reagan's ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism, declared it to be a "plague to governments and peoples all over the world." In 1999, the bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission said, "America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on its homeland." The Clinton administration spent years trying to arrest or kill Osama bin Laden, and the Bush administration took up where it left off.

Secondly, no administration would knowingly put the lives of American citizens at risk.

No president could know an attack on the United States on the scale of Sept. 11 was coming and not move heaven and earth to prevent it. Presidents differ on a lot of points, but not this one. To suggest otherwise is to join the American lunatic fringe.

Third, every president is tough on terrorism. Every president opposes it vigorously. It's hard even to compare their anti-terrorism plans. Threats change, as do methods of response. Twenty years ago, Reagan faced terrorism that was largely state-sponsored. Today's terrorists represent no state; they operate in a netherworld of fanaticism with a religious face.

Two decades ago, terrorists targeted specific victims for specific reasons. Casualties were few but significant. Today, terrorism itself is the end, and success is measured in the number of innocents killed and the level of mayhem created.

It does so happen that the al-Qaida threat emerged on the watch of the last administration. The Clinton administration moved to check the threat, but the organization continued to grow. Could President Clinton have done more? Perhaps, but it would have required taking on entrenched interests that would have done anything necessary to block fundamental reforms in border control, immigration enforcement and intelligence sharing.

It also would have required tough new foreign policy initiatives to contain terrorism and detain terrorists. The United States would have had to lean on friends to do things they wouldn't have wanted to do.

And it would have required the muscular use of military force -- something for which an embattled Clinton, facing impeachment and myriad investigations into his ethics and conduct, would've been hard-pressed to win congressional approval.

Just as it's likely Clinton did all he thought he could to prevent Sept. 11, it also seems evident from testimony before the various commissions looking into the attacks that George W. Bush was on the case before they occurred.

His administration appears to have realized there was more to counter-terrorism than exacting revenge and trying to prevent attacks -- that the allied powers had to destroy the entire al-Qaida network. Just as Roosevelt had mapped out allied strategy months before Pearl Harbor, Bush should get credit for assembling the elements of a much broader plan to take on terror before Sept. 11.

We can debate the merits of the Iraq campaign in the war on terror. But it's hard to blame Bush, who had been to Ground Zero and saw the consequences of allowing bin Laden time to grow and train his organization, for not wanting to repeat the mistake and wait too long to move against Saddam Hussein.

Finally, some argue America's campaign against terror will serve only to breed more terrorists. One supposes our campaign in World War II inspired some fascists, but does anyone argue it wasn't the right thing to do?

The idea of these commissions isn't to affix blame. It's to find ways to do a better job of defending America. We'll all be better off if they stick to their purpose.

-- James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow in defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

-- United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared on United Press International