The commissioners on the Sept. 11 panel asked the same question over and over: Why didn’t the Clinton administration take stronger military action against al Qaeda’s Taliban refuge in the 1990s, when the Sept. 11 plot was being hatched?
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s consistent response was simple: “You have to go back to the pre-9/11 mindset.” By this she meant that before Sept. 11, stronger military action was politically impossible; thus the blame for the Clinton administration’s failures to act preemptively against al Qaeda rests on everyone, not specifically on the commander in chief.
Defenders of the Clinton administration have twinned this claim — “We can’t be blamed, because no one wanted us to take stronger military action” — with its post-9/11 obverse assertion: President Bush doesn’t deserve any credit for toppling the Taliban and ending al Qaeda’s sanctuary, because after Sept. 11 anyone would have done this. In the words of Bush’s most recent and surprising critic, former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke: “Any leader whom one can imagine as president on September 11 would have declared a ‘war on terrorism’ and would have ended the Afghan sanctuary by invading.”
But the first claim is only partly true, and because it is, the second claim is almost certainly false.
Albright is partly correct; there was a pre-9/11 mindset that shaped Clinton-era responses. The mind-set was “counterterrorism as law-enforcement.” The role of the military was at best a supporting one. Moreover, because the uniformed military themselves opposed a military role, the law enforcement mind-set was reinforced by Clinton’s pathological civil-military relations. Even if President Clinton wanted to conduct military operations against al Qaeda, he was simply too weak a commander in chief to prevail over a military that wanted nothing to do with a war in Afghanistan.
The Clinton record on military operations was clear: frequent resort to low-risk cruise-missile strikes and high-level bombings, but shunning any form of decisive operations involving ground troops in areas of high risk. The Clinton White House was the most casualty phobic administration in modern times, and this fear of body bags was not lost on Osama bin Laden. Indeed, al Qaeda rhetoric regularly “proved” that the Americans were vulnerable to terrorism by invoking the hasty cut-and-run after 18 Army soldiers died in the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” events in Somalia — a strategy developed and implemented, ironically enough, by the same Richard Clarke who torments the Bush team today.
So Albright is correct that Operation Enduring Freedom, the campaign to topple the Taliban, was not possible with a commander in chief who was afraid to lead the public to accept the human costs of war.
This suggests, however, that the critical event was not simply Sept. 11, 2001, which changed the public’s perceptions, but also the 2000 election, which changed the commander in chief. President Bush came into office convinced that the casualty phobia of his predecessor had made America a tempting target, a paper tiger. When terrorists struck the twin towers and the Pentagon, Bush interpreted it as proof that America looked weak.
While most of the recent media attention has focused on early internal debates about Iraqi involvement, in fact the early public debate about 9/11 was over whether Bush was rash in declaring “war” on the terrorists. Most experts and pundits — especially among our allies — still clung to the “counterterrorism as law enforcement” mind-set. And viewed from that frame, it was foolhardy to declare war.
For starters, declaring war seemed to elevate the terrorists to co-combatants, rather than leaving them as criminals to be dealt with by police dragnet. The decision to invade Afghanistan was even more controversial. Suddenly armchair experts were quoting Kipling and ruminating on how the Afghans had twice defeated reigning military powers, first the British Empire and then the Soviet Empire.
The risky approach ordered by Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, which relied heavily on Special Forces and air power, was especially subject to criticism. As late as Nov. 4, 2001, the dean of academic security studies experts, John Mearsheimer, was warning in an opinion piece that “neither the current bombing campaign nor the deployment of American ground forces to Afghanistan offers good military options for dealing with the Taliban and al Qaeda. A better approach would emphasize ground-level diplomacy, with open wallets, among Pashtun leaders in central and southern Afghanistan.” Viewed in hindsight, the Bush-Rumsfeld military plan looked brilliant, but at the time it was highly controversial and decidedly risky.
Would a less stubborn commander in chief have pursued the risky war plan that ultimately toppled the Taliban and put al Qaeda on the run? The record of the ’90s suggests otherwise. A White House that cut and ran after the death of 18 soldiers probably would not have had the stomach for the possible casualties. A White House that could not prevail over military objections to using ground troops in Kosovo would have had a hard time overcoming institutional military objections. A White House that ordered retaliation in the form of a night-time strike on an empty intelligence building would not have backed Operation Enduring Freedom.
Before Sept. 11, Clinton defenders say, we did not have irrefutable proof of the casus belli of al Qaeda-Taliban complicity, there was no international consensus on the need to invade Afghanistan, and it would have been politically risky for the United States to act in the face of military objections. The same could be said about the invasion of Iraq after Sept. 11. In other words, determined commanders in chief have the mind-set and the resolve to act in spite of the political climate and military resistance.
By Peter D. Feaver
The writer is professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, and is the author of “Armed Servants,” a book detailing civil-military relations in the Clinton administration.