Archive for Tuesday, March 30, 2004

War on terrorism calls for unity

March 30, 2004

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Although I initially welcomed the parade of officials, current and former, that testified before the 9-11 commission, their attempts to clarify the United States' preparedness in dealing with terrorism left me dissatisfied.

Aside from an occasional interesting tidbit, Americans did not learn anything really new about the circumstances surrounding Sept. 11, 2001. I, for one, have no desire to wallow in the endless rehashing of what happened on that terrible day.

Given what we know now, I also have no reason to question President Bush's assertion that he would have acted sooner against al-Qaida, had he known of that group's plans to attack U.S. targets. But let's be realistic. Even if the president had moved proactively, he would have needed a hefty dose of an eternally elusive element -- luck -- to stop the perpetrators.

In addition, the incessant finger-pointing in the testimony, both within and across presidential administrations, struck me as infantile, counterproductive and helpful only to al-Qaida leaders, who surely must be rubbing their hands in glee over America's messy internal squabble.

Actually, the blame extends far and wide. U.S. presidents, from George W. Bush to Bill Clinton to George Bush to Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter, bear collective responsibility for inadequately responding to the modern wave of terrorism.

It is not that those presidents lacked awareness of the terrorism challenge or shirked their duty to mount counterterrorism efforts. But they also operated within the realm of what they thought was politically possible. That is, they perceived limits -- both domestic and foreign -- on the scope and intensity of operations that they might direct against terrorists.

Those self-imposed restraints resulted in measured responses to terrorists that led the perpetrators of attacks against U.S. targets -- along with violence-prone spectators -- to believe that the United States was either unable or unwilling to confront their menacing ambitions. Combine that perception with the zeal of an organization such as al-Qaida, and one comprehends the formula for the disasters that befell the nation on 9-11.

It is ironic that Osama bin Laden and his cohorts once found common ground with the United States in opposing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. However, the bin Laden bunch never had any love for America or its ideals.

When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and later dissolved, bin Laden's delusions of importance and influence inevitably grew. It was not long before he would focus his giant-killing fantasies on the remaining superpower. U.S. actions during the Persian Gulf War of the early 1990s, including the placement of troops in Saudi Arabia, provided the motivation.

It is not Monday-morning quarterbacking to suggest that the appropriate moment to launch a war against terrorism came a decade ago, long before the miscreants had gathered resources, planted operatives and crafted elaborate plots.

Without a galvanizing event such as 9-11, though, no president before the present one apparently felt that he had the political leeway to take the necessary steps against terrorism. Some commentators have speculated that a U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan during the 1990s could have prompted global disapproval and divisiveness similar to the situation in Iraq today. Indeed, former Defense Secretary William Cohen testified before the 9-11 commission that U.S. allies, Congress and the American people would not have supported such action.

Finally, the bruising experience of the 9-11 commission testimony, designed to seek the truth, could end up deepening national tensions and clouding thinking about related foreign-policy concerns, including the war in Iraq.

Cohen, who continued discussing his version of events with audiences in Orlando the day after he testified before the commission, has the right idea. Speaking from a refreshingly nonpartisan perspective, he urges Americans to deepen their understanding of the extent of the terrorist challenge and increase their vigilance. The complacency that impaired America's ability to thwart terrorists on 9-11 still pervades the system. Furthermore, Cohen urges cooperation in dealing with Iraq; like it or not, every American now has a vested interest in the United States' success there.

The national unity of which Cohen speaks flickered into view only briefly late in 2001. If only it would return without prompting from the next attack.




John C. Bersia is an editorial writer for the Orlando Sentinel. His e-mail address is jbersia@orlandosentinel.com.

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