Swatting at flies

Posted: Apr 10, 2004 12:00 AM

 The National Commission on Terrorist Acts Upon the United States ostensibly has been exploring how the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks could have happened and how they could have been prevented. In light of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's testimony Thursday, I, like so many others, have figured out an easy answer: Get the panel to construct a time machine so that all those geniuses who now believe that Sept. 11 easily could have been averted can wave a magic wand and reinvent the past.

 That's sort of what is going on anyway. Some commissioners seem to have forgotten what life was like before the Sept. 11 attacks. They're ignoring the fact that the security policies made sense and fit the circumstances, until the circumstances changed. And they're ready to point fingers at Rice and President Bush for not pushing for changes that America never would have accepted until after Sept. 11.

 Rice began her testimony by citing terrorist incidents that pre-dated the Bush presidency. These included the half-blundered bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, attacks on U.S. installations in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the 2000 attack on the destroyer Cole. The Clinton administration responded to these attacks by relying on local law enforcement -- New York and Saudi Arabian -- and the occasional aerial bombing.

 It is now clear that the Clinton response was inadequate. Law enforcement couldn't stop al Qaeda from plotting more violence. The military didn't get lucky and take out al Qaeda. Instead, feckless bombings contributed to the legend of an Osama bin Laden who could laugh at America's high-tech weaponry.

 That's why, Rice testified, President Bush came to dismiss the Clinton approach as "swatting flies." Too bad it turned out that the Bush response to the Cole attack -- to not swat flies while trying to woo Pakistan -- was inadequate, too.

 But in the context of the times, it is not realistic to have expected more from either administration. No one with a memory would suggest that President Clinton could have been considerably tougher on al Qaeda. While the losses at the embassies in Africa were deplorable, al Qaeda had not inflicted enough damage to outrage the American public to the point where voters would accept boots on the ground.

 Ditto after the Cole. If Bush had called for war within months of taking office, after a bitter election finale, critics would have called him a warmonger and warned darkly that he was only fueling the fires of Muslim martyrdom. The outrage wasn't there. He would have failed.

 Simply put, the death toll hadn't hit the tipping point.

 Commissioner Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska, has been the man to watch during the commission hearings. Kerrey has been tough on both administrations. And unlike almost everyone else in Washington, Kerrey was pushing for a military response to the Cole attack -- against Iraq, no less -- when it wasn't a popular move. You have to respect the man and his convictions.

 That said, Kerrey's not being realistic if he thinks Bush could have won support for a military response -- other than ineffective aerial bombings -- to the Cole. It was hard enough for Bush to win support after al Qaeda thugs attacked Washington and New York, killing 3,000 people and leaving a smoking hole in the American landscape.

 That's what makes the whole exercise of the commission hearings so revolting.

 Critics who fault Bush for being pre-emptive on Iraq do not hesitate to fault Bush for not being pre-emptive when it came to attacks that were unexpected and unimagined. Some behave as if they believe the president is supposed to be a superhero who can smell threats, including risks that intelligence staffers haven't been able to pinpoint.

 Kerrey faulted the Bushies for having a phobia about their "m-word" -- mistake. Granted, Bush League has been too slow to release information, too defensive and not very savvy in its refusal to simply say that the administration wishes it had known more and acted on it.

 The Bushies also can't come out and say what everyone knows -- that America was too busy, too happy and too peace-loving to pounce on al Qaeda.

 It's an old story that a country's strengths are its weaknesses. It is a national strength that Americans are reluctant to go to war. It is right that America has been slow to use its unmatched clout as a club to bend others to our will. It is just and admirable that the world's most powerful nation has to be provoked before it counterattacks.

 It was an approach that worked. Until it didn't.