Transnational terrorism is by now on everybody's tongue and maybe even everybody's mind. But it wasn't so long ago that the threat of terrorism was a preoccupation of the very few, Richard Clarke chief among them. The American foreign and security policy mainstream -- the soft-power advocates, the Eurocentric multilateralists, the globalization enthusiasts, and Kofi Annan's dinner partners, the U.N.-firsters -- considered him a dangerous crank, an obsessive deserving only ridicule. America's ever-alert, and often hysterical, civil libertarians were alarmed by his ideas for safeguarding the homeland. To make matters worse, he was a consistent ally of Israel in the governments of Bush père and Bill Clinton, both of which shared an identical formula for how to shepherd the peace process: Squeeze the Jewish state to assume additional risk and make yet more unreciprocated concessions. Clarke's job was, in fact, always in peril during the Clinton administration, and its structural sloppiness may be one reason he survived.
Terrorism is an enigmatic, elusive problem. Our inherited models of military conflict do not encompass it, although our enemies in the cold war and, alas, some of our right-wing allies (for instance, in Nicaragua and Angola) resorted to it, with both sides in these encounters shedding innocent blood with impunity. Yet these ugly eruptions were contained, more or less, within territorially defined theaters of war. The Viet Cong, after all, did not plant bombs in U.S. cities.
The first polity to become acutely conscious of international terrorism was Israel. High-profile, cross-border Palestinian terrorism began at the Munich Olympics in 1972, and the German government -- hardly for the last time --allowed the murderers to escape punishment to buy what it hoped would be immunity from other such acts. This was only the beginning--the bare beginning -- of dozens of such incidents.
As a consequence, Zionists, and Israel's friends more generally, grasped earlier than others that a new and ugly presence had burst on the world scene. The murder of random civilians, a reversal of the progress made in the rules of war after 1945, seemed primitive. But the terrorism employed by the Palestinian movement relied on quite sophisticated economic and political underpinnings. The Palestinians had the support and assistance of governments -- and not just Arab governments -- and the help of a wide array of extremist movements: The Palestinians moved vast amounts of cash around, some from the United Nations and Europe, and even some from the United States. They received technical training from a whole variety of states, military matériel and explosives, fake diplomatic immunity, passports, and straightforward ideological support at international jamborees -- like the one at Durban, which was pointedly organized by Mary Robinson, then U.N. high commissioner for human rights, now a professor at Columbia University.
The fact that Palestinian terrorism had been deemed modern time's singular --or, at least, only ongoing -- species made it seem a parochial concern. But it wasn't. The Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the IRA, the Basque ETA, the attempted assassination of the pope, not to mention the Tamil Tigers' shocking carnage in Sri Lanka -- all these could have been taken as predictors of the future. But few had the stomach to face the truth, and indifference reigned virtually everywhere.
Not excluding the United States. This year's partisanship has obscured the obvious truth behind the current 9/11 Commission hearings: Before September 11, 2001, both the Clinton and Bush administrations were unable or unwilling to mobilize the country against the growing terrorism threat. Neither the first World Trade Center bombing (which the Justice Department treated as a simple case of law enforcement), the enormities at two of our African embassies in 1998, nor the 2000 attack on the USS Cole disturbed our stupor. There is a rabbinic commentary about the tale of the walls of Jericho collapsing after Joshua's soldiers marched around them seven times. The first time, the city's inhabitants were frightened. The second, they were mildly disturbed. By the seventh, they couldn't care less and didn't defend the walls at all.
It wasn't as if the Clinton and Bush governments did nothing with regard to the terrorism threat. Under both presidents, Clarke pursued, among other matters, his longtime and highly justified fixation with the threat of cyberterrorism. But neither administration could overcome the ingrained habits of insularity and protectiveness that characterized America's security agencies. That is why every account of September 11 contains hair-raising tales about the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). They did not talk to each other, and no one --neither Sandy Berger under President Clinton, nor Condoleezza Rice under President Bush -- could knock their heads together. In fact, we have little evidence that the national security advisers even tried. That is why two September 11 terrorists, who were on the terrorism watch list of the CIA, were able to cross frontiers and why Mohammed Atta was able to roam the northeast corridor at will, board a plane in Portland, Maine, and then board the fated craft in Boston. It is also why timely reports from FBI agents in Phoenix and Minneapolis -- one with a suspicion about flight schools, the other with suspicions about a single conspirator, Zacarias Moussaoui -- were ignored.
One of the few high-level officials who comes off well in Clarke's book is Vice President Al Gore. Twice during the Clinton administration, Gore led attempts to enhance the security of air travel. If the salient suggestions of his two efforts -- one a commission focused on airline safety and security, the other his reinventing-government initiative that sought to reform the relevant bureaucracies (including the FAA) -- had been put into effect, the United States would have been less vulnerable to Atta and his colleagues. The Gore commission's recommendations -- high-tech baggage-screening for explosives and better training for screeners -- are now mandatory. But, at the time, they were undercut by airline lobbyists and Republican congressmen. Even more controversial (and potentially valuable) were the commission's recommendations for passenger screening, which, a former Gore aide involved in both studies told me, were killed by Democratic congressmen and the American Civil Liberties Union. Other ideas -- for protective devices in cockpits and sky marshals -- were shelved by the commission when it became clear they too would be politically impossible. (Even THE NEW REPUBLIC doubted their value.) Some of the Gore recommendations were put into effect within a week after September 11, but not all.
Even worse than the failure to take airline security seriously was the failure to really go after Osama bin Laden. The inhibitions that prevented American forces from trying to kill bin Laden when they had opportunities reflect a paralyzing blindness about the mortal perils posed by terrorism to civil society. This was the triumph of queasy international lawyers over ethical realists. Such rules date back to the Ford administration's interdict, pushed on it by the Church Committee, against assassinations of anyone. Even now, technically, our armed forces cannot kill any important terrorist unless they are actually trying to capture him -- or pretending to.
Then there is the enticement of diplomacy, a mirage when it comes to Al Qaeda and its sponsors. The Taliban couldn't, or wouldn't, produce bin Laden and neither did the Saudis. Diplomacy never works with apocalyptic partners. Yet the Clinton administration wasted much time chasing after intermediaries, and even the Bush administration appears to have done a bit of the same.
When, after the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton launched cruise missile strikes against sites in Afghanistan and Sudan, Republicans ridiculed the effort, not so much because the targets were flimsy or the power employed was meager, which they were. Instead, they claimed the attacks were meant to deflect public attention from his public troubles regarding his playmate Monica Lewinsky. This scorn would surely have prevented Clinton from pursuing a real military effort against Al Qaeda, which ran counter to his administration's instincts anyway.
Clarke, by contrast, was possessed by a compulsion about terrorism. Alas, he could not persuade either of the last two administrations for which he worked to share it. David Johnston and Todd S. Purdum in a March 25 article in The New York Times describe Clarke as having warned that "Al Qaeda had sleeper cells in many countries, including the United States." Now that the Democrats are so enthusiastic about Clarke and his ideas, let them and their presidential candidate put forward a concrete strategy for uncovering this diffused and malevolent underground. But perhaps John Kerry does not think this necessary. He has accused the Bush administration of having "exaggerat[ed]" the threat of terrorism, a judgment he may yet have to eat. But, then, let the Republicans, who are after all still in power, at least give the American public instructions about what it needs to know and do if and when another disaster strikes. Our ignorance on this matter is no tribute to George W. Bush. The sad fact is that both parties have failed us, and both of the presidents they have put forward in this anxious time have as well.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief of TNR.