Almost everyone sounds like a hawk these days, at least when talking about the past.
President Clinton should have tried harder to kill Osama bin Laden. President Bush should have beefed up domestic security during the summer of 2001. The CIA shouldn't have been so squeamish about assassination. And the United States should have been fighting the war on terror for at least the last 10 years. By not doing so, our government "failed" us, in the now-famous words of Richard Clarke.
Such steely national consensus is impressive. Too bad it's all nonsense.
There is an old philosophical axiom -- "should" implies "can." Whether one should act is only meaningful if the act itself is possible. So before we entertain notions of what U.S. leaders should have done before 9/11, we need to be clear on a fundamental question: What could they realistically have done?
Not much, to be blunt.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had their roots in the militant Islam seeping out from the oppressive, fearful, pre-modern states of the Near East. An effective response to such a threat would have required national resolve on a scale that simply did not exist before 9/11, any more than the fortitude to fight the Axis was there before Pearl Harbor.
For example, by the end of the 1990s, it was clear that Al Qaeda was a growing threat and that Afghanistan was its base. Invading that country, destroying the Taliban and killing hundreds of Al Qaeda members would have made the 9/11 attacks less likely to occur. Would the American public and Congress have supported such an "unprovoked" preemption? Or could a presidential candidate in 2000 have made the invasion of Afghanistan his campaign theme and been elected? Of course not.
Let's move to something less ambitious. For instance, could the U.S. government have significantly strengthened airline security before 9/11?
It is difficult to see how. Those were the days when Congress was gung-ho for the "passenger bill of rights," and no representative hoping for reelection was going to suggest taking pocket knives away from travelers. (Yes, the box cutters were perfectly legal to carry aboard on 9/11.) Nor would anyone have urged pilots and crew members to battle a hijacker in midflight, jettisoning 30 years of successful, and nonviolent, techniques for dealing with air piracy.
Then what about something in the middle, something between the conquest of Kabul and tight security on airplanes? What about assassinating Bin Laden? In 1976, President Ford signed Executive Order 11905: "No employee of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination." Ford's prohibition stands to this day, excepted only in wartime. Contrary to what many believe, it is followed to the letter by the CIA.
According to documents from the 9/11 commission, Clinton did tell the CIA to get Bin Laden. But the president's instructions were squishy. He ordered the capture of Bin Laden -- but if Bin Laden resisted, the CIA could kill him.
Senior policymakers have said the president's intention was clear: He wanted Bin Laden assassinated. But every CIA official involved in the case -- every single one -- believed a genuine attempt at capture was required, that simply sending out a team to kill Bin Laden was not sanctioned by the directive.
Could the CIA have been more aggressive? Not with the baggage it's been carrying since Watergate. While it is fair to say the agency is risk averse and needs to take more chances, it is wrong to believe that it can do so on its own. Unfortunately, no administration since the fall of the Berlin Wall -- Republican or Democrat -- has seen fit to provide the requisite vision and leadership.
So what about the capture-or-kill order? Could Clinton have been less coy? It's hard to see how the threat information he had would have justified breaking a decades-long bipartisan precedent against political assassination -- even in retrospect. That's because such actions just aren't supposed to happen in democracies. In the U.S., political power lies with the electorate and, in the decade preceding 9/11, Americans were in no mood to support extraordinary measures against a (seemingly) ephemeral threat like transnational terrorism.
Given such national complacency -- the "end of history" and all that -- it is childish to claim that Clinton or Bush could have diverted resources to problems for which there was no electoral concern. President Roosevelt couldn't have done it before Dec. 7, and neither could Bush before Sept. 11.
Condoleezza Rice is correct, and Clarke is wrong.
Thomas Patrick Carroll is a former officer in the clandestine service of the CIA.