The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9-11 Commission) released its report to much media fanfare in late July. Although the commissioners labored mightily, they have given birth to a mouse. The report is safe, cautious, and eminently bipartisan. In other words, it largely avoids discussing the most serious issues surrounding the threat that radical Islamic terrorism poses to America.
Much of the document deals with the failures of the FBI, the CIA, and other agencies to anticipate and thwart the devastating attacks launched on September 11, 2001. Some of the criticisms (the lack of communication between key agencies, the absence of effective screening mechanisms at the borders, and the missing of key clues) are warranted. Others are classic exercises in 20-20 hindsight.
The commission also addresses a few larger issues, and most of its judgments are balanced rather than inflammatory. For example, the report examines a series of contacts between the government of Iraq and Al Qaeda operatives. In marked contrast to the hysterical exaggerations of neoconservative war hawks, however, the commissioners note that those contacts were sporadic and that Saddam Hussein’s regime rebuffed Osama bin Laden’s request for space to establish training camps as well as assistance in acquiring weapons. The members of the commission conclude that there is
no evidence that these or earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with Al Qae-da in developing or carrying out attacks against the United States.
Although the commission studiously avoids discussing the merits of the Iraq war (to avoid controversy and to make it possible to have a unanimous report), those conclusions may make the Bush administration uneasy. After all, the President and his advisors cited two major reasons for attacking Iraq: the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction and the alleged connections between Baghdad and Al Qaeda. The first allegation was discredited long ago, and now the commission has effectively discredited the second.
Another pertinent issue is the relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda. That relationship seems more substantive and intriguing than the minimal one between Iraq and the terrorist group. Senior Al Qaeda operatives traveled to Iran for training in explosives in the early 1990’s, and the commission cites evidence that both Iran and Al Qaeda may have been involved in the Khobar Towers attack. There also is evidence that Iranian officials allowed at least eight, and perhaps as many as ten, of the September 11 hijackers to transit their country from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia. The report stresses, however, that there is no evidence that Tehran knew about the terrorist plot, much less had anything to do with it. Predictably, neoconservatives ignore that caveat and cite the report as justification for a policy to topple the fundamentalist Islamic regime.
More important than the issues the report addresses are the issues it skirts. The failure to discuss the Bush administration’s argument that the Iraq war was a crucial part of the War on Terror is an obvious omission, but there are others. Although the commission properly chastises both the Bush and Clinton administrations for not taking the Al Qae-da threat seriously enough, there is little discussion about what either administration was doing instead of focusing on Bin Laden.
The Clinton administration certainly was not inactive on the foreign-policy front during the mid and late 1990’s. That was the period in which the United States invaded and occupied Haiti, intervened in the Bosnian civil war, enforced draconian sanctions against Iraq and periodically bombed that country, and wrested Serbia’s province of Kosovo away from Belgrade’s jurisdiction through a NATO air war. Not one of those interventions was relevant to America’s security interests. But our attention and resources were focused on those matters instead of the very real threat that was emerging. The Bush administration’s obsession with ousting Saddam Hussein (which predated the September 11 attacks) reflected similar myopia.
An even more serious deficiency is the commission’s tepid treatment of the crucial issue of how U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East creates resentment that strengthens the forces of radical Islamic terrorism. In fairness, the report presents a more sophisticated treatment than the Bush administration’s argument that the terrorists hate America because of her commitment to freedom and other noble values. (One wag has aptly described this as the “they hate us because we’re beautiful” thesis.) Instead, the commission acknowledges that there is a great deal of anger in the Muslim world at U.S. policies.
But the commission’s prescriptions are either contradictory or anemic. An example of the former is the call for a greater commitment to democracy and freedom in the Middle East juxtaposed with proposals for close cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—two of the least democratic governments in the region. An example of the latter is the admission that U.S. support of Israel antagonizes large swaths of Muslim opinion without an accompanying call for any meaningful change in U.S. policy toward Israel.
Instead of addressing such sensitive matters, the commission merely calls for a greater effort at public diplomacy to win the hearts and minds of Muslims. That approach woefully misconstrues the problem. The reservoir of hatred in the Middle East toward the United States that has been building for decades is not the result of a failure of Muslims to understand U.S. policy. They understand it all too well. And they are not going to be won over by a slick, Madison Avenue p.r. campaign. The problem is the content of U.S. foreign policy, not its packaging.
By failing to address these and other vital issues, the 9-11 Commission has missed an historic opportunity. It chose to play it safe and issue a bland, comfortable report that focuses on secondary matters. Instead of going for the jugular of Washington’s misguided and dangerous policy in the Middle East, the commission showed that it had an instinct only for the capillaries. That likely suits the Bush administration and the war-hawk faction just fine.
This article first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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