July 11- 2004
By Jay B. Gaskill
A number of moderate democrats reacted to the 9-11 catastrophe with a silent, “Thank God Al Gore isn’t president right now.” As realists, they understood that different times call for different leaders, and that the new circumstances called for someone who (in the words of former Clinton political advisor, Dick Morris) could see the new world in black and white. As Morris and a number of other former Clinton supporters agreed: That meant someone other than Al Gore.
Given a third term, Bill Clinton might have risen to the challenge. Outside of that fantasy, many democrats came to the view that Bush the younger was the country’s only real hope to lead the kind of unflinching, robust response that such a blatant attack warranted.
Of course, we’ll never know whether anyone else would have done much better.
Were we to take a pre-Iraq war snapshot, this is what we would see: Really, there was very little difference between the preceding Clinton administration’s assessment of Iraq and that of the incoming Bush administration. The world’s intelligence agencies had achieved a consensus view in 1998: Iraq possessed banned stockpiles of biological, radiological and chemical weapons. Recall that 1998 was the year when the UN inspectors were evicted, and when Congress and the Clinton administration called for regime change as official US policy.
Time passed. US intelligence, dependant on a special relationship with the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, effectively went blind. The intelligence community began relying on old information and new informants who couldn’t be corroborated. A new US administration came in, retaining the same intelligence apparatus. A few months later, the entire national security bureaucracy was blindsided by the 9-11 attacks on Manhattan and DC.
We need to remember that the pre-9-11 Bush administration was fairly isolationist at the outset, critical of Clinton’s nation building exercises and over-commitment of forces. The Bush NSC staff had to be converted to a forward, threat prevention policy by catastrophe and a self protective CIA. Burned by its massive pre-9-11 intelligence failure, the CIA reassessed every threat from a new perspective. The Bush administration began listening to the policy advocates who identified the problem as a systemic assault on the US and its allies by a world wide terrorist network sponsored and supported by the covert and overt support of a handful of governments in the Middle East region.
Re the Iraq threat: The CIA has properly been taken to task for its failure to assess the capabilities of the Iraq regime. But the assessment of Iraq’s malevolent intentions and potential threat was dead-on accurate. In retrospect, the CIA and other world intelligence agencies were wrong in aspects of the threat analysis, but the underlying facts were based on fairly solid intel. [All individual intel. sources are suspect, but most of the Iraq “misinformation” was well cross-corroborated.] All bureaucrats everywhere practice the art of covering their posteriors. After 9-11, “CYA” rules governed the intelligence community: No one wanted to be associated with a “no threat here” conclusion, lest they be burned at the stake for failing to detect the next 9-11. So the analysis bias changed from complacency to hyper-vigilance.
The central difference between the post-9-11 Bush administration and the Clinton administration was this sea change in the analytic stance, a direct result of the September attacks, and the institutional failure to have seen it coming. Arguably, the Clinton administration would have gone though much the same process and come out in much the same place. Here are the four most important elements of the change:
The risk / response profile radically shifted after the Trade Towers went down, the Pentagon was hit and at least one major DC target (White House? Congress? FBI Headquarters?) was nearly hit. Post 9-11, there was very little room for the notion of any “acceptable” risk because the realistic scope of danger now included American cities, government centers, communications and transportation infrastructure and other symbolic, economic or national security assets. Serious discussion about preemption took place because of this.
The 1998 consensus about Saddam’s weapon stockpiles became a presumptive finding that Saddam was a threat. The burden shifted to those who were prepared to prove that the threat was negligible or easily contained.
Isolationism and narrowly crafted legalistic defense measures were no longer politically or morally defensible.
International support, while seen as desirable, was no longer a condition precedent to the use of military force in self defense, including preemption. [Here the ground had already been partly broken by the Clinton administration whose Yugoslavia military action was never presented to the UN for approval.]
Now that the smoke has cleared for the moment, it is a good time to recall that both the pessimists and optimists were wrong about Iraq. Invasion pessimists were wildly off the mark, both in grossly overestimating American casualties and underestimating the rapidity that American forces were able to topple Saddam. Liberation optimists were seriously off the mark when the cheering crowds quickly mutated into rioters and an easy liberation mutated into an uneasy occupation.
Could Saddam have been contained? Who would bear the responsibility if containment had failed and a cache of biological, radiological or chemical weapons were transferred by Iraq to terrorists or delivered to another country via banned missiles?
After it is all said and done, we can be certain that at the time that Saddam evicted the weapons inspectors, his regime possessed strategically significant quantities of one of more of the above WMD’s. Every major intelligence agency in the world thought so. There is absolutely no credible evidence to the contrary. Did Saddam secretly destroy these assets? Where is the evidence? I for one am morally certain that Saddam would never have destroyed his WMD assets. He would have scattered them in small stockpiles on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border.
The Iraq War demonstrated both the futility of containment and a belated invasion. In retrospect, only a massive surprise attack taken a full year before the actual invasion might have succeeded in trapping the illegal weapons in place. Distracted by Afghanistan, a reluctant Pentagon, and its own internationalists — and weakened by the Florida balloting controversy and a deeply divided country — the Bush administration just couldn’t get it together in time.
For now, the Bush administration enjoys a high retaliatory credibility with our enemies in the region. Syria, the most likely recipient of Saddam’s WMD’s, doesn’t dare do a thing with any WMD’s on its territory. That, of course, could change the moment a softer, gentler administration takes office. This is tragic for the democrats because the situation is ready made for a tough challenge from the national security right. It is acutely tragic because (with the demise of Scoop Jackson and the retirement of Sam Nunn) there is no viable national security wing in the Democratic Party at present. Senator Kerry has ambiguous credentials at best; following his flirtations with the anti-war left, he has almost no credibility as a hawk.
Clinton made cautious moves in the direction of a more robust national security policy during his second term, but without advancing the military infrastructure appropriate to the stance. Thus, it was left to republican George W. Bush to respond to the challenges of an ongoing terrorist assault on the US with the Clinton Administration’s military and intelligence bureaucracy largely intact.