The Soviet Communist Party used to devote a lot of attention to the problem of inefficient agriculture.  The party’s Agrarian Policy Commission debated endlessly, throughout the final quarter-century of the Soviet state’s existence, how to improve the system.  Should the state farm (sovkhoz) be made self-financing?  Should the collective farm (kolkhoz) have its own heavy equipment, or should it depend on state-operated tractor stations?  How to reconcile the principles of the command economy, with its procurement quotas and state-fixed prices, with the need to motivate peasants to produce more?  What should be the maximum area of the private plot on which farmers can produce food for their own use and to supplement their incomes: a quarter-hectare or a half-hectare?

The notion that both state and collective farms should be abolished, the price of produce determined by the market, and the land given back to peasants whose holdings should be limited only by their ability to work the land never entered the discussion.  To make such a suggestion would have marked the end of an apparatchik’s political career and exposed him to all manner of unpleasantness.  The solution to the problem of collectivized agriculture lay outside the ideological parameters of the decisionmaking community.

This spring, the proceedings of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States had the same Soviet quality.  The bipartisan ten-member commission was supposed to investigate the circumstances surrounding the failure of America’s intelligence agencies to predict and stop the September 11 attacks and to recommend solutions to any systemic failures it identified.  In the course of its proceedings, the commission asked all kinds of “hard” and “probing” questions designed to determine if the Bush administration could have done more to prevent the attacks and what threat assessments, procedures, and policies it inherited from Bill Clinton.  The televised hearings included testimony from Colin Powell and his predecessor, Madeleine Albright; Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz; Condoleezza Rice and John Ashcroft; Clinton defense secretary William Cohen and national security advisor Samuel Berger; and former White House counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke, who, two days before his testimony, published a book taking Bush to task for his administration’s alleged failure to deal adequately with the terrorist threat.

Like good Politburo members, the witnesses indulged in a blame game of the sovkhoz versus kolkhoz kind.  They never touched on the fundamentals of policy or history that would help them understand the problem of terrorism and, thus, enable them to make recommendations on how to prevent tragedies in the future.  Three primary and two secondary areas of great concern remained unexplored.  The primary ones are this country’s immigration policy, the nature of Islam, and the strategy of global dominance.  The secondary ones concern the shortcomings and terrorism-related nuances of American policies in the Middle East and in the Balkans.

Testifying before the commission, the widow of a September 11 victim criticized the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, now the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, USCIS), for granting visas to 15 of the 19 hijackers who were “single, idle young adults with no specific destination in the United States”—“classic overstay candidates” whose visa application forms, moreover, were incomplete and incorrect.  Other witnesses criticized the lack of coordination between the INS and other agencies and suggested procedural improvements.  Their focus was invariably on the “failures” of the system to function properly, not on the possible flaws in its ideological tenets.

The existence of a large Muslim diaspora in the United States and elsewhere in the West was treated as a given.  Testimony specifically addressing this issue came from Dr. Abou El Fadl, a devout Muslim and UCLA professor described as “one of the leading authorities in Islamic law in the United States.”  El Fadl asserted that, “as with all of the immigrant groups, many American Muslims bring with them dreams of liberty and justice,” and he insisted that the “War on Terror” demanded “actively resisting and guarding against the alienation of any part of our citizenry.”  The underlying multiculturalist assumptions of the immigration policy that had allowed the establishment and growth of this particular segment of “our citizenry” were not scrutinized.

The existence of the multimillion-strong Muslim diaspora in the United States and elsewhere in the West provides terrorists with the recruits, the infrastructure, and the relative invisibility without which they would not be able to operate.  A substantial segment of this immigrant group shares key objectives with the terrorists, even if it does not approve of all their methods.  A sizeable minority of Muslims in the United States wishes to transform this country into a caliphate and to replace the Constitution with sharia.  A coherent long-term counterterrorist strategy, therefore, must deny Islam a foothold in the West.  Like the idea of the free market to a Soviet party hack, however, the use of cultural and religious criteria in determining the eligibility of prospective immigrants is ideologically unacceptable to the ruling American establishment.

Closely related was the commission’s failure to address the phenomenon of Islam and, in particular, to examine Islam’s impact on its adherents as a political ideology and a program of action.  The notion that terrorism is an aberration of Mohammedanism and not a predictable consequence of the ideology of jihad is a firmly rooted bipartisan consensus.  The commission’s behavior again appeared ideological and dogmatic.  Were it not so, former President Clinton would have been asked to explain his statement to the U.N. General Assembly, made almost exactly three years before September 11, that “there is no inherent clash between Islam and America.”  Were it not so, President George W. Bush would have been asked to explain his often repeated assertion that Islam is a “religion of peace,” that “we know [sic] that Islam is fully compatible with liberty and tolerance and progress,” and that “terrorists who claim Islam as their inspiration defile one of the world’s great faiths.”

There are two possibilities here: Either Presidents Clinton and Bush knew the truth about Islam but pretended otherwise for political reasons, and the commission quietly understood their need for diplomatic prudence and made the pragmatic decision not to dwell on the issue; or they meant what they said, and the commission regarded their statements as unremarkable and therefore unworthy of scrutiny.

The former could have been the case in another era, when Western decisionmaking elites shared an instinctive understanding of who they were and what they were defending.  Had they striven to draw the distinction between the “moderate, mainstream” communists and the “extreme” subversive fringe in the 1950’s, the Cold War would have been lost.  Such a robust sense of self no longer applies in the bipartisan multiculturalist paradigm, and, for that reason, neither the present administration nor its recent predecessors could develop a coherent conceptual image of the adversary without which there can be no viable antiterrorist strategy.  Clinton’s hope to co-opt Islam into a consumerist postnational global village is indistinguishable from Bush’s hope to domesticate Islam under the aegis of a nondenominational deism.  Both attempts have failed, but this failure has not been admitted by the commission.

The third key problem that remained unexamined concerned the link between terrorism and the commitment of the United States to the unrestrained projection of her power everywhere in the world.  That commitment, asserted in Bill Clinton’s 1999 war in Kosovo, was made official in the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy unveiled in September 2002.  In a forum supposedly devoted to “grilling” the respondents, it was at least worth asking Mr. Rumsfeld’s or Dr. Wolfowitz’s opinion whether the terrorist threat to America is in any way related to the policy of global hegemony implicit in that strategy, which is largely their brainchild.  On this important issue, however, the commission was blinkered by the ideology of American exceptionalism—an eminently bipartisan delusion, having a Clintonian form in “humanitarian interventionism” and a neoconservative form in global hegemonism.  Having internalized such assumptions, the commission was as likely to offer useful insights on the War on Terror as Ptolemaic astronomy was to explain the motions of planetary bodies.

Concerning secondary issues of specific policies, Israel was strangely absent from the commission’s deliberations.  Different aspects of U.S. policy in the Middle East were mentioned in various testimony, but nobody asked the one question that is the mother of all others: Is our “special relationship” with Israel in any way connected to the terrorist threat?  The bipartisan assumption was unstated but clear: The United States should continue to provide open-ended and nearly-unconditional support to Israel because our unsinkable aircraft carrier is at war with the same terrorists as we are.

This may be true, but an open-minded commission should not assume that it is so.  It should look, without prejudice, into the possibility that a different, less-passionate relationship would be beneficial to a long-term antiterrorist strategy, by reducing the perception of a permanent American bias in Middle Eastern affairs that breeds rage which fuels terrorism.  The commission, however, did not explore any ways to stop alienating over one billion Muslims.

Less significant, but equally noteworthy, is that the entire Clinton team was allowed to go through hours of testimony without a single question about the assumptions and objectives of the administration’s policy in the Balkans between 1993 and 2001.  Single-minded support for Bosnian and Albanian Muslims turned the Balkans from a protectorate of the New World Order into an Islamic threat to Western interests.  Clinton’s intervention resulted in the strengthening of an already aggressive Islamic base in the heart of Europe, which is now all but permanent.  He was still in the White House back in 2000 when a highly classified State Department report—released in the aftermath of September 11—warned that the Muslim-controlled areas of Bosnia had become a safe haven for Islamic terrorists who threaten Europe and the United States and who were protected by the Muslim government in Sarajevo.  Not a single major terrorist outrage of recent years, including the recent bombing in Madrid, was devoid of a Bosnian connection.

The culpability is not only Clinton’s: The problem of collusion between U.S. administrations and Islamic radicals harks back to the support Bin Laden and other fundamentalist Muslims received from Washington following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.  Admittedly, at the height of the Cold War, Carter’s and Reagan’s advisors could argue that “blowback” was a risk worth taking.  A quarter of a century later, however, it is essential to spell out and to rectify more recent blunders of a similar nature.  If the War on Terror is to have any meaning at all, the September 11 commission should have investigated the evidence that, throughout the 1990’s, the U.S. government aided and abetted Al Qaeda in the Balkans, long after it was recognized as a major security threat to the United States.  That this did not happen is largely the result of administrations of both parties having provided effective support for Islamic ambitions in pursuit of short-term political or military objectives.

The establishment of a national commission to investigate terrorist attacks on the United States was a good idea.  It could have been the forum for thinking the unthinkable and making America safer in the process.  The decision to appoint to its panel ten political insiders who belong to different parties but share the culture, values, and prejudices of the prospective witnesses reflected the determination of the duopoly to prevent any such boldness.  The commission has succeeded in avoiding key issues and, thus, has failed America.  Its report has not yet been issued, but its tone can be predicted.  It will apportion blame for the details; there will be a lot of partisan haggling and horse-trading in the course of its drafting; the Democrats may even issue a minority report blaming Bush.  As for discussion of the real questions and meaningful survival strategies, there will be none.  In the aftermath of the worst terrorist outrage in U.S. history, a bipartisan Washington learned nothing and forgot nothing.