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June 19, 2008

Pre-Iraq Mentality
Posted by David Shorr

I would like to take this unusual opportunity to charge two fellow DAers with being too soft on some of the bunk that tries to pass for political (and constitutional) discourse these days. The conservative lines of attack have gotten unbelievably shrill lately. So bad that I'm almost ready to welcome this Hennypennyism from the Right  -- AMERICA IS AT WAR! - PRE-9/11 MINDSET!!! -- rather than be offended by it. Frankly, the voting public should be offended by this stuff, because more than anything else, it's an insult to their intelligence.

Actually, I'll bet my bottom swing voter that they actually will be offended, or at least see right through it. For the simple reason that there is very little there; it is nothing more than a schoolyard game of who can beat up who. So Michael, I don't disagree with a word of your review of the relative merits of law enforcement versus military action in combatting terrorism. Except I no longer believe the Right is really making an argument for the military as a counterterror tool. Think about it, how often do we hear proposals from political leaders for how our military can and will win the war on terror for us. Should we're-fighting-them-over-there count as such an argument? Or is it really a last political stand for standing up to the bad guys, whatever bad guys, Al Qaeda, Iran, you know, bad guys?

Pre-9/11 mindset? Bring it on. In response, we should talk about a pre-Iraq mindset. I'd argue that America has learned something from difficult recent experience. Only those with a pre-Iraq mindset believe that the most important thing is to give sober warnings about the adversaries who want to harm us (is there another kind?) and melt them away with demonstrations of our strength and resolve. Only those with a pre-Iraq mindset believe the key is to lash out in some direction, any direction, with little thought to who they are, how they work, and what will work against them. Is somebody keeping track of how many different adversaries we've focused on in Iraq? Do we still believe that any action can be justified against terrorists, that nothing we might do undermines our own cause, that it doesn't matter how many new terrorists are joining the cause? For my part, I think the majority of Americans have a post-Iraq mindset.

Thank you, Adam, for noting some of the farcical elements of the response to the Boumediene decision. But let us linger a bit more on Justice Scalia's dissent. The opening section is a veritable catalogue of they're-really-out-to-get-us. My friends, this is not a debate about whether they're out to get us. Let it be stipulated: they are. The question of what to do about it is not part of the same question; it is a separate matter. Acknowledging the reality of the threat, which is undeniable, does not answer the question of how to respond. In fact, when treated that way -- as an automatic, unconsidered, contextless show of force -- it brings problems. What the terrorists do is their choice; what we do is ours. It's time to make the choices that stand the best chance of defeating terrorists, instead of making a spectacle of their evil. That is the post-Iraq mindset, and this debate will be won by seriousness over hysteria.


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So, to fight terrorism we should return to the policy the Clinton administration took toward al Qaeda in the years before 9/11.

No? OK, what did Clinton get wrong? What mistakes did he make that we should not make again? Democrats had nearly eight years after the first World Trade Center bombing to show how "tough and smart" they could be on terrorism, eight years in which al Qaeda grew and prospered. Are they now repudiating that record or was Clinton's the right course, and occasional mass-casualty terrorist attacks an acceptable price to pay for the world's goodwill?

Sen. McCain's campaign is not terribly well organized; message development is being done on a daily basis in conversations at the back of the bus. So the questions above haven't really been asked yet. I suppose it's even possible that they won't ever be. But the Democrats are running a candidate for President with no record on foreign and national security policy, asking the American public to take it on faith that he can manage foreign and national security policy. I'd be surprised if it occurred to none of McCain's people to ask Sen. Obama to explain how, or if, his approach to a key foreign policy issue differed from the one taken by the last Democratic administration.


The Bush administration had 8 months prior to 9/11 to decide if it was at war or not, and it chose not. The alleged Clinton failures overlook the Bush failures; Guantanamo did not stop al Qaeda from branching off anymore than rendition under Clinton radically disrupted it. The Bush approach brought us Bali, Madrid, and London; it did not "win" the "war."

Of course, these arguments are silly, but if the rightists are going to say "pre 9/11 mentality" than they must show that their post-9/11 policies stop terrorism. They haven't.

Here's the point. What you do about terrorists is find them, get them, and stop them. All this other stuff about challenge-of-our-generation is for domestic political show and is a slippery slope toward just the kinds of overreactions terrorism is intended to provoke. What we really need to do is orient, equip, and support the people who do the finding and catching for us. In terms of the Clinton Era baseline -- that does mean an orientation of federal law enforcement away from evidence collection and towards intelligence. Bottom line, though, we need a lot more emphasis on the painstaking professional effort to track down terror networks and a lot less on political posturing (see Ron Suskind 'One Percent Doctrine').

Another part of the Pre-Iraq mentality is the lack of federal response in case of terrorist attack or national emergency. If the terrorist should in the very unfortunate event launch a chemical or nuclear attack on the United States the federal response would be extremely inadaguate. As seen with the Kansas tornadoes, Katrina, and the recent flooding in Iowa, FEMA has been impotent while the National Guard has been unable to respond effectively due to the fact that a great percentage of its members are overseas. Improving FEMA and the National Guard's effectiveness in handling emergencies should be a top national security issue in the presidential campaign.

That's actually a fair summary of what the Clinton administration did not do. It did not take terrorism seriously, did make complacent assumptions about the efficacy of legal proceedings, and did respond ineffectually when challenged. It compiled a record over many years, a period that ended with the threat from al Qaeda exponentially greater than when it began.

That was the record of the last Democratic administration. I'd surely like to believe the next Democratic administration will recognize that Clinton's approach is not one we can return to, and that the people making policy in it mean by phrases like "tough and smart" the same things that David Shorr means. Do I believe that now? No.

As the saying goes, "In God we trust, all others pay cash." Nothing I've heard from Barack Obama so far gives me much confidence that this foreign policy novice wouldn't slide back into doing what Bill Clinton did with respect to terrorism as soon as this represented the path of least resistance. Now, I'm reasonably open to persuasion; I think I've made clear enough here from time to time my contempt for the idea that the future of one, mid-sized Arab country is central to our own, as well as for most of the policy and many of the people most closely associated with George Bush's approach to the terrorist problem. But if Obama really does understand that the alternative to the course Bush has pursued is something very different from the one adopted by Bill Clinton that did so much to make terrorism such a serious question in the first place, he really ought to say so.

Zathras can no doubt give us some evidence on how "the threat from al Qaeda [was] exponentially greater than when [the Clinton administration] began." Is he referring to nineteen guys with box cutters that were allowed, because of Bush administration intelligence failures, and coordination failures, and unknown factors which have been withheld by the Bush administration as evidenced by its sabotage of the 9/11 report, with all its unanswered questions about 9/11, to attack the US on 9/11? Nineteen guys with box cutters are evidence that al Qaeda "grew and prospered?"

Perhaps al Qaeda previously only had twelve guys with boxcutters.

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