June 16, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

The Establishment Strikes Back

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were, self-evidently, the worst intelligence failure in American history. Less well understood: They also were the worst policy failure.

For more than two decades, extremist ideologies within the troubled Islamic world gathered strength. On campuses and in Washington think tanks, most “experts” either misunderstood Radical Islamism or underestimated the terrorist threat it posed. “Experts” in the Foreign Service prescribed only weak broths as remedies.

Such failures should be prompting re-examinations within the foreign policy community. Evidence that is not happening is the formation of a group calling itself “Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change.”

The name is misleading: First, only a few of the 26 signatories have military backgrounds and most of those long ago joined the civilian foreign policy establishment. (For instance, Stansfield Turner, though a retired admiral, is best remembered as President Carter's CIA director). 

Second, these folks are not exactly in favor of policy change. They were among the architects of the policies that led to 9/11. They seem furious that President Bush decided, following 9/11, to change US policy. They are outraged that Bush's new policies have “strained” relations with such “traditional allies” as France and Belgium.

Let me be clear: Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change are patriots who worked hard, assumed risks and meant well. But until and unless they acknowledge their past errors of judgment — errors that enabled terrorism to grow and prosper – one has to conclude that they are in denial.

For example, there are currently 18,000 trained al-Qaeda terrorists around the world, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Most of them learned their craft in Afghanistan in the 1990s. (Others probably trained in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.)

President Clinton's policy advisors developed no strategy to infiltrate or shut these training camps; no plan to track the terrorists after they graduated.  On the contrary, during the 1990s intelligence budgets were repeatedly cut, and Special Forces – Delta, Rangers, Seals, Marine Recon, CIA para-militaries — were not expanded. 

What were the “experts” thinking? Did they reason that the newly trained terrorists might attack Russians in Chechnya, Hindus in Kashmir or Jews in Israel – but surely not Americans at home and abroad?

Or think back to 1979, when America's diplomats in Tehran were seized by Militant Islamists and held for 444 days. President Carter launched an abortive rescue mission. Such failures might have prompted Carter to dramatically strengthen America's military and covert capabilities.

But Carter – advised by Stansfield Turner as his intelligence chief – had significantly weakened those disciplines. He had fired 25% of U.S. intelligence operatives – including skilled covert operators. “I believe that emboldened terrorist groups,” said one of those whom Carter dismissed. “You may remember that the government outlawed ‘assassinations.' So, the government did not need a group of espionage agents that were trained to operate in the field, in ‘denied' areas, in official and non-official cover positions, to engage in active espionage warfare with communists, terrorists and left-wing governments.”

Democrats were not alone in misjudging the dangers of Radical Islam. In 1982, Hezbollah suicide-terrorists killed over 250 Americans in Beirut. President Reagan's response was to pull out of Lebanon. 

And after the 1991 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush left Saddam Hussein in power, despite the fact that Saddam had been attempting to develop nuclear weapons, had used chemical weapons as part of a genocidal assault on the Kurds, and attempted to wipe Kuwait off the map.

For world-weary diplomats, such crimes did not warrant anything as drastic as Saddam's eviction from his palaces. Besides, “experts” predicted that Saddam's defeat in the Gulf War would cause Iraqis to depose him on their own. Wrong again.

Two years later, in Mogadishu, al Qaeda-trained terrorists again made Americans flee –reinforcing the perception of Osama bin Laden that America is weak and could be defeated by an adversy bold enough to try.

Even if the Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change cannot bring themselves to criticize their past efforts, one might expect them at least to offer some new ideas, strategies and policies. They have not. 

They also missed the fact that the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry is advocating policies for Iraq and the broader War on Terrorism that are nearly identical with those of President Bush. (In fairness to Kerry, Bush has moved closer to him on such issues as UN involvement.) The retired diplomats don't explicitly endorse Kerry, but they do call for “the defeat of the administration” which they apparently regard as a cleverly ambiguous turn of phrase.

One has to suspect that what these people really want is a return to policies that did not ruffle feathers in parts of the world where they have friends and summer homes, parts of the world that have rarely made a stand against despots but do boast superior food and wine. How disloyal, it must seem to them, to abandon long-held policies simply because those policies have failed.

Let's concede that the anti-terrorism policies put in place post-9/11 may not be the best policies America could have. Let's encourage criticism and fresh approaches.

But let's agree as well that America's pre-9/11 policies were not just feckless but catastrophic. To say that those who designed and implemented them bear much of the blame is undiplomatic – but it is the only response one can have to proponents of the status quo ante who falsely proclaim themselves agents of change. 

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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