At this week’s 9/11 hearings, the much-anticipated finger pointing between Democrats and Republicans did not really occur. There was partisan jockeying and sniping, but in general a certain politesse prevailed—Madeleine Albright understands the position Colin Powell was in, Mr. Powell understands the forces at work as Ms. Albright’s State Department wrestled with a proportional response to actionable intelligence.
At first I was surprised, then relieved—a partisan dogfight would only inspire America’s foes. But two days in I wondered if the central dynamic of the hearings didn’t come down, simply, to this: Government takes care of government. People in government who’ve achieved a certain position in foreign affairs tend to treat gingerly people in government who’ve achieved a certain position in foreign affairs. They are on the same social circuit, have experienced similar pressures and stresses, have read similar data, talk to the same journalists. They belong to a brotherhood, and at the hearings you could tell. (An uneasy brotherhood, though: It was hard not to find yourself wondering, as you watched the testimony, if a lot of these people didn’t have something on each other.)
Everyone seemed distressingly reasonable. The testifiers all offered long and understandable stories as to why they took the decisions they took, or didn’t take decisions, or couldn’t possibly have taken them. About halfway through Sandy Berger’s testimony I remembered the words of the film director Jean Renoir: “The terrible thing about life is that everyone has his reasons.”
The hearings did no damage to common-sense assumptions about 9/11. Common sense suggests that those who led the nation for eight years before 9/11 bear greater responsibility than those who led the nation for less than eight months. Nothing in the hearings disturbed that notion. In fact, I thought Ms. Albright’s testimony tended to underscore it. She spoke of the “megashock” of 9/11 and repeatedly suggested there was no political will on the part of the American people before that date to attack the Taliban or invade Afghanistan.
She’s right. There was no movement among voters to take out Al Qaeda. Most people didn’t know what al Qaeda was. But that of course is where leadership comes in.
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One summer day in the late 1990s I had a long talk with an elected official who was a friend and longtime political supporter of President Clinton. I asked him why, if Bill Clinton cared so much about his legacy, he didn’t take steps to make America safer from terrorism. Why didn’t he make it one of his big issues? We were at lunch in a New York restaurant, and I gestured toward the tables of happy people drinking golden-colored wine in gleaming glasses. They’re all going to get sick when we get nuked, I said; they’d honor your guy for having warned and prepared.
Yes, the official said, but you have to understand that Clinton is purely a poll driven politician, and if the numbers aren’t there he won’t move.
Too bad, I thought, because the numbers will someday be there.
The lunch was off the record, and I appreciated the official’s candor; he didn’t try to spin me. I wasn’t shocked by what he said—Mr. Clinton was a poll driven animal. But you didn’t have to be psychic to know bad things were coming; you only had to be watching the world. I found myself marveling at Mr. Clinton’s thinking, which in the short term was savvy and in the long term spoke of a kind of moral retardation.
It is not the job of a president to say, “I’d like to do what’s necessary to protect our country, but the people won’t understand it or appreciate it.” It is the job of a president to say, “I have to do what is necessary to protect our country, and so I’ll try to persuade the people as to the rightness of my thinking. But if it comes to that I’ll do what’s needed and pay the price.”
Mr. Clinton did not do that. He did not attempt to rouse the American people.
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Abraham Lincoln once said that public opinion is everything. Lincoln, however, did not sit around musing that he’d like to abolish slavery but the people don’t want it, or that he’d like to hold the country together but voters don’t like body bags, and anyway what’s the exit strategy? (In fact Lincoln, in his war, had an exit strategy: Kill them until they give up, then leave.) Lincoln tried to form public opinion. He spoke to people. He persuaded.
Ronald Reagan had his head kicked in every day for taking steps he actually believed were right, such as helping the Nicaraguan democrats against the communist Sandinistas. He paid the price, enduring cries of “warmonger” and “cowboy.” But in the end the Sandinistas were vanquished and democracy came, and something like peace.
Mr. Clinton never wanted to pay the price. He wanted to be popular. And so he campaigned hard on child safety seats and midnight basketball. Baby issues.
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Why did the government fail to see 9/11 coming? Some individuals did—writers, thinkers, military experts. But those we elected, and those they appointed, by and large did not. Why?
This is the great question. The hearings did not answer it.
It was a failure of imagination, a failure to envision that a terrible thing could happen, that a particular terrorist group meant to do what it said it would do. There was a sunny and empty-headed assumption that America would stay lucky; after all, we’d been lucky since terrorists hit the World Trade Center in 1993, and that wasn’t so bad—just a handful killed. It was a failure to take our enemies seriously. All of us each day have so much we want to do, but the terrorists each day wanted to do one thing: get America. That was an advantage. There was a pass-the-buck mentality that prevails in government, with everyone quick to go on record warning of a threat and then letting the warning itself act as a replacement for action.
And to make it all worse we had, from 1993 to 2001, an essentially unserious president who had no clue what to do with the power he had accrued, or even the popularity, and who squandered both in a need for personal drama and trauma. He had eight solid years to move, but he did not do the hard things he had to do. He left it for the next guy.
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The hearings should not have been held, for one reason: Our country at this moment in history should not be focusing time and attention on who made mistakes and why and when. Not that these things don’t matter; they do, desperately, and history will be full of the story. But we have a war to fight, a country to protect, and that is what should have precedence. As government officials last week rehearsed their testimony the enemy was planning new horrors for Americans to endure. Right now we should be preparing—taking protective action in our ports and around our nuclear facilities, at our borders, etc. American officials should not be busy testifying; they should be busy making sure every citizen has a CBN suit, a regulation gas mask and data on how to recognize and respond to a chemical, biological or nuclear incident.
The most pressing thing at the moment is making America safer. Instead, our officials are otherwise engaged. As they were before 9/11.