Monday, July 09, 2007

Is Bush soft on terrorism?

Anyone remember "The Path to 9/11", the ABC miniseries about events leading up to the terror attacks that day?

The film was scripted by Cyrus Nowrasteh, a screenwriter with conservative political connections, leading to charges of political bias.

(Tangent: Nowrasteh has an interesting background for a conservative, having been born in Boulder, Colo., and grown up in Madison, Wis., both notable liberal outposts. And it turns out we both graduated from the same high school, though he donned the mortarboard a good 11 years before I did).

A key scene involved the Clinton administration pulling the plug on a mission to kill Osama bin Laden out of fear that kids might get hurt, a scene portrayed in the right-wing media as evidence that the Clintonites -- in this case, Sandy Berger -- didn't have the guts to properly fight terrorism.

Surprise, surprise: it turns out Bush had has own "Path to 9/11" moment in 2005.

A secret military operation in early 2005 to capture senior members of Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas was aborted at the last minute after top Bush administration officials decided it was too risky and could jeopardize relations with Pakistan, according to intelligence and military officials.

The target was a meeting of Qaeda leaders that intelligence officials thought included Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy and the man believed to run the terrorist group’s operations.

But the mission was called off after Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, rejected an 11th-hour appeal by Porter J. Goss, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, officials said. Members of a Navy Seals unit in parachute gear had already boarded C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan when the mission was canceled, said a former senior intelligence official involved in the planning.

So does this show Bush was soft on terror? Of course not. And neither did Clinton's decision to call off a similar strike.

In Clnton's case, the problem was that shaky intelligence made a risky endeavor riskier.

In his recently published memoir, George J. Tenet, the former C.I.A. director, said the intelligence about Mr. bin Laden’s whereabouts during the Clinton years was similarly sparse. The information was usually only at the “50-60% confidence level,” he wrote, not sufficient to justify American military action.

“As much as we all wanted Bin Ladin dead, the use of force by a superpower requires information, discipline, and time,” Mr. Tenet wrote. “We rarely had the information in sufficient quantities or the time to evaluate and act on it.”

The 2005 mission was canceled for different reasons, though the principle remains the same. It's hard to argue with Rumsfeld's logic here:

Mr. Rumsfeld decided that the operation, which had ballooned from a small number of military personnel and C.I.A. operatives to several hundred, was cumbersome and put too many American lives at risk, the current and former officials said. He was also concerned that it could cause a rift with Pakistan, an often reluctant ally that has barred the American military from operating in its tribal areas, the officials said.

Not wanting to cheese of Pakistan has less weight, in my mind, than the complexity of the operation itself. One need only look at what happened to Jimmy Carter's effort to rescue hostages in Iran to understand why special ops missions, while meticulously planned, need to be kept as small and simple as possible.

But the key point here is that military operations always take into account two sets of conditions: political and military. The whole purpose of military action, after all, is to achieve national political goals, and the political situation determines what military actions are acceptable. I'm not talking about partisan political goals, a separate and disreputable beast entirely. But political considerations always and properly set the context within which military action is contemplated.

The story goes on to describe the frustration of some special-ops commanders at the cancellation, just as some were frustrated by the cancellation of the Clinton-era strike. Contrary to what you might expect, though, that's a good thing.

Military commanders are tasked with carrying out whatever missions are required of them, and you don't get to be a special-ops leader without being very motivated and gung-ho to do your job. The best are clear-eyed realists, of course, but their realism tends to be restricted to addressing the military problem at hand.

That is what makes them such superb military tools. But that is also precisely why the final say rests with the civilian leadership. The leadership's job is to bring careful, deliberate consideration to a decision to use force, weighing the political and diplomatic factors that the ground commanders don't. It does not make the civilians weak or wrong if they decide that the mission isn't worth it.

Nor does it automatically make them right. Politicians can be quite risk-averse, especially when the problem is something as amorphous as terrorism, something that doesn't actually threaten our existence. We have a well-developed special operations capacity that is well-suited to fighting terrorists. We should be willing to both develop it further and to use it when necessary.

But now that Bush has his own example of freezing with his hand on the trigger, perhaps we can get past simplistic arguments over who is softer on terror, and acknowledge the complex realities of bringing effective fire to bear on elusive targets in remote areas of the world. And seek to find a workable balance between excessive risk and excessive timidity.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aaahhh...."Bush did it too" gives Clinton a pass, eh? I thought you guys didn't care for that kind of thinking? According to the movie, the intelligence was about as good as it will ever get, per official playing the part who stated so. The Clinton's bowed out because they feared civilians were there to. Well, guess what? Civilians are always there; the terrorists make sure of that. I don't see the similarities at all.

And as far as discounting the "Path to 9/11" because the screenwriter may have conservative connections.....does this mean we can all discount all the media, movies, documentaries, and news reports were the writers have Democrat connections? If so, Sean----you'll lose on that one all day long.

JP5

7/09/2007 4:41 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Aaahhh...."Bush did it too" gives Clinton a pass, eh? I thought you guys didn't care for that kind of thinking?

Read more closely. I excuse Clinton (and Bush) on their own terms, not because of each other.

According to the movie, the intelligence was about as good as it will ever get, per official playing the part who stated so.

Note the key phrase: "According to the movie."

And as far as discounting the "Path to 9/11" because the screenwriter may have conservative connections....

One should always take the writer's bias into account. Especially when describing a scene that the screenwriter has no real way of knowing about, and which all the participants disavow.

That said, I didn't discount the movie based on his conservative background. I simply noted the background and the controversy. In fact, for the purposes of the post, I took the scene at face value.

7/09/2007 5:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not all the participants disavowed it. Only the Clinton administration.

The documentary was based on the 911 Commission Report. Dialog was made up, of course, as it always is in movies. But the story line is true based on reports of what happened and how it happened.

BTW, you don't care for the what you call---conservative slant----but did you object to the pressure of the Clinton's who pressured ABC into taking a scene out? I doubt it. And so----would you like it if Bush pressured tv outlets to cut scenes from movies that might show him or his administration in a bad light?

JP5

7/09/2007 7:29 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

The documentary was based on the 911 Commission Report. Dialog was made up, of course, as it always is in movies. But the story line is true based on reports of what happened and how it happened.

From what I understand, this particular scene was very loosely based on the report. I believe the basis for that scene was the uncorroborated testimony of a single person.

BTW, you don't care for the what you call---conservative slant----but did you object to the pressure of the Clinton's who pressured ABC into taking a scene out? I doubt it.

As a general rule, I couldn't care less what pressure groups say about fictionalized accounts of their heroes.

And so----would you like it if Bush pressured tv outlets to cut scenes from movies that might show him or his administration in a bad light?

You mean like the pressure that was put whichever network produced the movie about Reagan?

I didn't write about that, I didn't write about "Path to 9/11." I just don't care, for the most part.

7/10/2007 9:31 AM  

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