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Friday, October 31, 2003

Domestic Politics and the War on Terror

Today's New York Times (registration required) has a political story everyone should read entitled, "Rice Faults Past Administrations on Terror." National Security Advisor Condi Rice spoke in New York last night to the National Legal Center for the Public Interest.

Basically, she used this and a TV appearance later in the evening to blame the Clinton administration for its alleged failure to take rogue states seriously. Here's what Rice said last night:
"Let us be clear," she said. "Saddam was not going to go away of his own accord. For 12 years, he gave every indication that he would never disarm and never comply with the Security Council's just demands. In fact, he mocked those demands and made every effort to circumvent them through a massive program of denial and deception."

Her speech to the legal center dwelt at some length on what she views as mistakes of the 1990's, and she was specifically critical of Mr. Clinton's approach to North Korea and to Iran. She argued that Mr. Bush is now succeeding at forcing the countries to roll back their nuclear programs.
This is all pretty bold stuff given that Iraq didn't have a nuclear program, or perhaps any WMD, and wasn't anything like an imminent threat.

Later Thursday night, Rice appeared on the Charlie Rose show and said this about Clinton foreign policy toward rogue states:
"It wasn't working with North Korea," she said. "No, it wasn't working with Iran. No, having Iraq for 12 years defy the United Nations on 17 different resolutions -- it wasn't working. And we had to confront that."
Of course, during the 2000 campaign, Rice herself had a very different view of the threats posed by Iraq (and North Korea and Iran). As she continues to do, Rice then blamed the Clinton administration for its failings. However, at that time, she didn't see these states as any kind of "grave and gathering" threat. Here are her words, posted on Stanford's Hoover Institution website, "adapted from "Promoting the National Interest" in Foreign Affairs, January/February 2000:
The United States must approach rogue regimes like North Korea and Iraq resolutely and decisively. The Clinton administration has failed here, sometimes threatening to use force and then backing down. These regimes are living on borrowed time, so there need be no sense of panic about them. Rather, the first line of defense should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence -- if they do acquire weapons of mass destruction, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration.
At no point does she explain how Clinton policy failed to deter (or contain) any of the rogue states.

The message that everyone is supposed to receive ifrom Rice's rhetoric is clear: President Bush talked tough about preemption, actually invaded and occupied Iraq, and now Iran and North Korea are caving to diplomatic initiatives because of the credible threat posed by the Bush policy.

Rice supervised the writing of the NSS document, which links the long-time US concern with rogue states to the war on terror (drawing, of course, on prior Bush speeches). Perhaps the speech is an internal reaction to last month's admission that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. No, really, nothing.

The dubious nature of this link is apparent when one examines another quoted passage from Rice's speech last night. Again, from the Times:
"It is now undeniable that the terrorists declared war on America and on the civilized world many years before Sept. 11, 2001," she said in remarks delivered to the legal center at the Waldorf-Astoria. "The attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985, the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988, the World Trade Center in 1993, the attacks on American installations in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000: These and other atrocities were part of a sustained, systematic campaign to spread devastation and chaos. Yet until Sept. 11, the terrorists faced no sustained, systematic and global response."
As the Times points out, this could be read as a critique of Reagan and Bush I as much as Clinton -- and the first nine months of W's administration.

This is also a totally stupid argument. Through the 1980s, the cold war was justifiably a more important foreign policy priority. Bush dealt with the invasion of Kuwait and Clinton faced violence all over the map (such as Yugoslavia and Rwanda). Rice herself wrote a lot more about Russia and China in her Foreign Affairs article than she did about rogue states and terrorism.

Even today, there are good reasons to think that other threats from terrorists are higher than the ones the administration is facing (or thinks it is facing) by focusing on rogue states.

And I don't even have to repeat the old cliche that, until 9/11, more Americans regularly died in their bathtubs than from terrorist attacks.

In any event, I predict this line of attack is going to fail -- and could blowback horribly for the administration. Michael Tomasky explains why in yesterday's web column at The American Prospect:
The question of Bush administration responsibility for 9-11, you may recall, was explored by some in the media in May 2002. Newsweek offered the most notable entry, with a 3,300-word cover package headlined "What Went Wrong?" In it, some of the magazine's lead writers on intelligence and foreign policy (Michael Isikoff, Mark Hosenball, Christopher Dickey) delved into various aspects of the story and came up with several tantalizing angles that had the potential to do real political damage to the White House. Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, briefed successor Condi Rice on al-Qaeda -- and she yawned. John Ashcroft nixed an FBI request for "hundreds more counter-intelligence agents," as the magazine put it, and reduced Justice Department funding for anti-terrorism activity. Donald Rumsfeld chose not to renew the Predator Drone, which tracked terrorist cells, and emphasized Star Wars Redux.

It was tough stuff. Other outlets piled on, and for two weeks the administration was playing defense. The problem was that no one -- the Democrats, say -- was playing offense.
This time, there are people playing offense -- Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, Joseph Wilson, and maybe even Thomas Kean and the CIA.

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