Friday, March 26, 2004

9/11 revisited revisited

More thoughts on the preventability of 9/11. Darren Kaplan points out that "the main 9-11 perpetrators were all already in the United States by January 10, 2001, ten days before Bush was even inaugurated." So, how could the president could have stopped the operation from going forward?

What if he were to have found and killed Osama Bin Laden using predator drones? Would killing their spiritual leader have deterred the Al Qaeda operatives already in striking distance, or would it have given them even greater determination to avenge his death?

Immediately after September 11th, there came a chorus of voices warning about the inevitable backlash which American retaliation would provoke. (Bin Laden himself is supposed to have said, "Even if this Osama is killed, a thousand other Osamas will arise.") Recently, the Israeli assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin has led to a storm of familiar condemnations: taking out the leaders of terrorist organizations only provokes a violent response.

So what was Bush to have done? Clearly, the best thing would have been to have prevented Al Qaeda's operatives from entering the country in the first place. But they were all granted visas, even though they should have been denied. But Saudis at that time got special treatment on visa applications. Bin Laden knew of this security weakness and he exploited it. A dozen other little security weaknesses made it easier for the terrorists to carry out their mass murder.

I know we tend to blame presidents for whatever happened on their watch, but I can not think any one person should be blamed. Governments are enormous, complicated, clunky machines. No one person can fathom all the parts, much less control them all. The Cuban Missile Crisis came about in large part because American missiles were in Turkey, although Kennedy had more than once ordered their removal. And Kennedy had it easy-- at least he knew from Day 1 what his first priority had to be: fighting communism.

As I said in a previous post, presidents are faced with thousands of problems which they are told threaten American lives or interests. Hundreds and hundreds of bureaucrats in Washington spend their days trying unsuccessfully to convince their superiors that such-and-such poses a grave danger and must be dealt with immediately. Fortunately, most of them are wrong, most of the time.

Dick Clarke is not a wizard or a prophet. Many of the dooms he has foreseen have not come to pass. He was right about Al Qaeda. But even when he had successfully convinced his superiors, including the president, of the gravity of this threat, he was unable to steer the ship of state toward a course that would wipe out the threat. No surprise, really. Like trying to hit a fly with a Buick. Impossible. Damn thing steers like a boat.


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