Bush's Call: Eliminate al Qaeda

Although the liberal press and partisan Democrats will never admit it, the controversy they have stoked in the wake of the publication of former National Security Council aide Richard Clarke’s anti-Bush book, Against All Enemies, has backfired. Rather than undercut President Bush’s best issue–national security–it has in fact sharpened the President’s image as a decisive leader in this area.

No one can seriously maintain that prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government paid sufficient attention to the terrorist threat against us. It obviously did not.

From the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran onward, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, and under both Republican and Democratic Congresses, the U.S. failed to respond decisively to a long string of terrorist attacks perpetrated against us by radical forces in the Middle East.

President Clinton’s most dramatic act of counter-terrorism came after he learned that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had tried to assassinate former President Bush by blowing up several square blocks of Kuwait City.

No More Swatting Flies

What did Clinton do? He launched a couple of dozen cruise missiles into the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service–in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, when he could be relatively certain few would be killed.

No doubt about it: September 11, 2001 was a tragic wake up call on a par with December 7, 1941.

But thanks to Richard Clarke–and the detailed testimony his attacks elicited from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice–we now know that even before September 11 President Bush had set the United States on a remarkable new course in dealing with the al Qaeda terrorist group. In his first months in office, Bush decided that rather than answer al Qaeda tit-for-tat, the U.S. would seek to eliminate the group.

“He made clear to us that he did not want to respond to al Qaeda one attack at a time,” Rice testified before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. “He told me he was tired of swatting flies. This new strategy was developed over the spring and summer of 2001 and was approved by the President’s senior national security officials on September 4. It was the very first major national security policy directive of the Bush Administration–not Russia, not missile defense, not Iraq, but the elimination of al Qaeda.”

In her testimony, Rice detailed elements of the administration’s plan–developed prior to 9/11–to eliminate al Qaeda. Highlights include:

  • “The strategy set as a goal the elimination of the al Qaeda network and threat and ordered the leadership of relevant U.S. departments and agencies to make the elimination of al Qaeda a high priority and to use all aspects of our national power–intelligence, financial, diplomatic and military–to meet that goal.”
  • “[I]t directed the secretary of State to work with other countries to end all sanctuaries given to al Qaeda.”
  • “It directed the secretaries of the Treasury and State to work with foreign governments to seize or freeze assets and holdings of al Qaeda and its benefactors.”
  • “It directed the director of Central Intelligence to prepare an aggressive program of covert activities to disrupt al Qaeda and provide assistance to anti-Taliban groups operating in Afghanistan.”
  • “It tasked the director of the OMB with ensuring that sufficient funds were available in budgets over the next five years to meet the goals laid out in the strategy.”

    And, crucially, it called on the Pentagon to develop a contingency plan for military action against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

  • “[I]t directed the secretary of Defense to . . . ‘ensure that contingency planning processes include plans against al Qaeda and associated terrorist facilities in Afghanistan, including leadership, command/control and communications, training and logistics facilities, and against Taliban targets in Afghanistan, including leadership, command/control, air and air defense, ground forces, and logistics; and to eliminate weapons of mass destruction which al Qaeda and associated terrorist groups may acquire or manufacture, including those stored in underground bunkers.”

    By contrast, the standing order on terrorism that President Clinton had left with the military, Rice testified, was “to provide transportation to bring individual terrorists to the U.S. for trial.”

    What Bush embraced in the months before 9/11 was a long overdue and much-needed sea change in U.S. policy toward terrorism in general and toward al Qaeda specifically. The overt military aspects of it, however, could not have been carried out prior to 9/11 because we would have needed the cooperation of the regime in Pakistan, and prior to 9/11 that regime protected the Taliban, which in turn protected al Qaeda.

    Did our national leadership respond too slowly to the threat of al Qaeda? Absolutely. But given what we now know that President Bush did do before 9/11 (as compared to what President Clinton did in his 8 years in office), it is also true that American voters acted too slowly to elect a President decisive enough to take the steps needed to kill the threat.

    Voters should not repeat that mistake this November.