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As for the Bush White House, one wonders how much it could have done before the attacks —hamstrung as it was by the deeply divisive 2000 election and by the complete lack of political support for military or intelligence operations. The 9/11 Commission made clear that intelligence and law enforcement agencies were stove-piping information, that agencies were not allowed to look for certain things or in certain places, that the federal government lacked many of the tools needed to connect the dots. We need not imagine the howls the left would have unleashed if Mr. Bush had taken precautionary steps in July or August of 2001, if he had ordered tightened security and additional screening at airports or mass-transit facilities, if he had sought to detain suspected terrorists, if he had tried to seek authority to wiretap bin Laden’s agents. We don’t need to imagine the reaction because the left attacked all of these policies after 9/11.
The left also attacked the doctrine of preemption, which Eichenwald’s critique of the Bush administration implicitly—and ironically—endorses.
It’s ironic because, by definition, preventing 9/11 would have required some sort of preemptive action. Yet Eichenwald criticizes “the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon” for ignoring the al Qaeda threat and instead focusing on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. The left’s revisionism notwithstanding, “the neoconservatives” were not the only ones concerned about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998—which passed the House with 360 yea votes and was signed by Mr. Clinton— earmarked $100 million for Iraqi opposition groups and declared that it would be “the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove from power the current Iraqi regime and promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” Moreover, it was Mr. Clinton who warned during his presidency, “If Saddam defies the world and we fail to respond, we will face a far greater threat in the future…Mark my words, he will develop weapons of mass destruction. He will deploy them, and he will use them.” And in the run-up to the Iraq War, when confronted by critics who argued that a war against Saddam Hussein and a war against bin Laden was an either-or proposition, it was Mr. Clinton who argued, “I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, I think we can turn up the heat on Iraq and retain our focus on terror.”
As to Eichenwald’s implication that the Bush administration devoted too much focus to Iraq after 9/11, he forgets that the attacks altered the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. “Any administration in such a crisis,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security.” Was deterrence possible? Was containment viable? Was giving repeat offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt responsible? The Bush administration’s answer to each question was “no.” And Congress concurred. The Iraq War resolution passed the Senate 77-23 and the House 296-133. Saddam Hussein’s associations, behavior and record with weapons of mass destruction fueled a presumption of guilt that, when mixed with America’s profound sense of vulnerability after 9/11, created a deadly combination. This is perhaps the most fundamental way 9/11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: The latter did not perpetrate the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same way, the appeasement of Hitler at once had nothing and yet everything to do with how America waged the Cold War against Stalin and his successors.
Of course, none of that matters to Eichenwald and the left. They have books to sell and history to rewrite.
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