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Fighting the Wrong War
by Bob Kerrey
New York Times
April 11, 2004

At Thursday's hearing before the 9/11 commission, Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, gave a triumphal presentation. She was a spectacular witness.

I was a tough critic of some of her answers and assertions, though I believe I was at least as tough with the national security adviser for President Clinton. At the beginning and end of every criticism I have made in this process, I have also offered this disclaimer: anyone who was in Congress, as I was during the critical years leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, must accept some of the blame for the catastrophe. It was a collective failure.

Two things about that failure are clear to me at this point in our investigation. The first is that 9/11 could have been prevented, and the second is that our current strategy against terrorism is deeply flawed. In particular, our military and political tactics in Iraq are creating the conditions for civil war there and giving Al Qaeda a powerful rationale to recruit young people to declare jihad on the United States.

The case for the first conclusion begins with this fact: On 9/11, 19 men defeated every defense mechanism the United States had placed in their way. They succeeded in murdering 3,000 men and women whose only crime was going to work that morning. And they succeeded at a time of heightened alert - long after we recognized that Al Qaeda was capable of sophisticated military operations.

Remember, the attack occurred after President Clinton had let pass opportunities to arrest or kill Al Qaeda's leadership when the threat was much smaller. It occurred after President Bush and Ms. Rice were told on Jan. 25, 2001, that Al Qaeda was in the United States, and after President Bush was told on Aug. 6, 2001, that "70 F.B.I. field investigations were open against Al Qaeda" and that the "F.B.I. had found patterns of suspicious activities in the U.S. consistent with preparation for hijacking."

Once again I know that President Clinton, President Bush and Ms. Rice all faced difficult challenges in the years and months before 9/11; I do not know if I would have handled things differently had I been in their shoes. It has been difficult for all of us to understand and accept the idea that a non-state actor like Osama bin Laden, in conjunction with Al Qaeda, could be a more serious strategic threat to us than the nation-states we grew up fearing.

But this recognition does not absolve me of my obligation to ask those who were responsible for our national security at the time what they did to protect us against this terrorist threat.

One episode strikes me as particularly important. On July 5, 2001, Ms. Rice asked Richard Clarke, then the administration's counterterrorism chief, to help domestic agencies prepare against an attack. Five days later an F.B.I. field agent in Phoenix recommended that the agency investigate whether Qaeda operatives were training at American flight schools. He speculated that Mr. bin Laden's followers might be trying to infiltrate the civil aviation system as pilots, security guards or other personnel.

Ms. Rice did not receive this information, a failure for which she blames the structure of government. And, while I am not blaming her, I have not seen the kind of urgent follow-up after this July 5 meeting that anyone who has worked in government knows is needed to make things happen. I have not found evidence that federal agencies were directed clearly, forcefully and unambiguously to tell the president everything they were doing to eliminate Qaeda cells in the United States.

My second conclusion about the president's terrorism strategy has three parts. First, I believe President Bush's overall vision for the war on terrorism is wrong. - military and civilian alike.

Second, the importance of this distinction is that it forces us to face the Muslim world squarely and to make an effort to understand it. It also allows us to insist that we be judged on our merits - and not on the hate-filled myths of the street. Absent an effort to establish a dialogue that permits respectful criticism and disagreement, the war on terrorism will surely fail. The violence against us will continue.

Such a dialogue does not require us to cease our forceful and at times deadly pursuit of those who have declared war on us. Quite the contrary. It would enable us to gather Muslim allies in a cause that will bring as much benefit to them as it does to us. That's why President Bush was right to go to a Washington mosque shortly after Sept. 11. His visit - and his words of assurance that ours was not a war against Islam but against a much smaller group that has perverted the teachings of the Koran - earned the sympathy of much of the Muslim world.

That the sympathy wasn't universal, that some in the Arab world thought the murder of 3,000 innocents was justified, caused many Americans to question whether the effort to be fair was well placed. It was - and we would be advised to make the effort more often.

Third, we should swallow our pride and appeal to the United Nations for help in Iraq. We should begin by ceding joint authority to the United Nations to help us make the decisions about how to transfer power to a legitimate government in Iraq. Until recently I have not supported such a move. But I do now. Rather than sending in more American forces or extending the stay of those already there, we need an international occupation that includes Muslim and Arab forces.

Time is not on our side in Iraq. We do not need a little more of the same thing. We need a lot more of something completely different.

Bob Kerrey, a member of the 9/11 commission and a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, is president of New School University.

Posted: April 12, 2004


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