The 900-page congressional report criticizing the operations of the FBI and CIA in the months prior to the September 11 attacks misses the fundamental point. Whatever incompetence on the intelligence agencies’ part, what made September 11 possible was a failure, not by our intelligence agencies — but by the accommodating, range-of-the-moment, unprincipled foreign policy that has shaped our government’s decisions for decades.
September 11 was not the first time America was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists engaged in “holy war” against us. In 1979 theocratic Iran — which has spearheaded the “Islamic Revolution” — stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 54 Americans hostage for over a year. In 1983 the Syrian- and Iranian-backed group Hezbollah bombed a U.S. marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 servicemen while they slept; the explosives came from Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. In 1998 al-Qaeda blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 individuals. In 2000 al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors.
So we already knew that al-Qaeda was actively engaged in attacking Americans. We even had evidence that agents connected to al-Qaeda had been responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. And we knew in 1996 that bin Laden had made an overt declaration of war against the “Satan” America.
But how did America react? Did our government adopt a principled approach and identify the fact that we were faced with a deadly threat from an ideological foe? Did we launch systematic counterattacks to wipe out such enemy organizations as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Fatah? Did we seek to eliminate enemy states like Iran? No — our responses were short-sighted and self-contradictory.
For instance, we initially expelled Iranian diplomats — but later sought an appeasing rapprochement with that ayatollah-led government. We intermittently cut off trade with Iran — but secretly negotiated weapons-for-hostages deals. When Israel had the courage to enter Lebanon in 1982 to destroy the PLO, we refused to uncompromisingly support our ally and instead brokered the killers’ release. And with respect to al-Qaeda, we dropped a perfunctory bomb or two on one of its suspected camps, while our compliant diplomats waited for al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks to fade from the headlines.
At home, we treated our attackers as if they were isolated criminals rather than soldiers engaged in battle against us. In 1941 we did not attempt to indict the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor — we declared war on the source. Yet we spent millions trying to indict specific terrorists — while we ignored their masters.
Despite emphatic pronouncements from Islamic leaders about a “jihad” against America, our political leaders failed to grasp the ideology that seeks our destruction. This left them unable to target that enemy’s armed combatants — in Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia — and the governments that assist them. Is it any wonder then that, although our intelligence agencies prevented many planned attacks, they could not prevent them all?
Unfortunately, little has changed since September 11. Our politicians’ actions remain hopelessly unprincipled. Despite the Bush administration’s rhetoric about ending states that sponsor terrorism, President Bush has left the most dangerous of these — Iran — untouched. The attack on Iraq, though justifiable, was hardly a priority in our war against militant Islam and the countries (principally, Saudi Arabia and Iran) that promote it. Moreover, when Bush does strike at militant Islam, he does so only haltingly. Morally unsure of his right to protect American lives by wiping out the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, Bush feared in Afghanistan world disapproval over civilian casualties. Consequently, he reined in the military forces (as he also did in Iraq) and allowed numerous Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters to escape. And Bush continues to allow their comrades-in-arms in the Middle East to go unharmed. He pretends that the Palestinians and Islamic militants attacking Israel — and who have attacked Americans in the past and will try again in the future — are, somehow, different from the killers in Afghanistan and deserving of a “peace” plan.
Instead of taking consistent, principled action to destroy our terrorist adversaries, politicians from both parties continue to focus on details like reshuffling government bureaucracies and haggling over how much criticism of Saudi Arabia the 900-page congressional report can contain. Thus, too unprincipled to identify the enemy and wage all-out war, but not yet completely blind to their own ineffectualness, our leaders resignedly admit that we're in for a “long war” and that there will be more terrorists attacks on U.S. soil.
There is only one way to prevent a future September 11: by rooting out the amoral, pragmatic expediency that now dominates our government’s foreign policy.