Speaking Tuesday to the congressionally mandated commission charged with investigating the policy failures that led to September 11, former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright said, "I do think, in all fairness, that 9/11 was a cataclysmic event that changed things."
Albright's statement tells the whole story. There was a world before 9/11. And there was a world after the 9/11. They are not the same world.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld concurred with Albright's assessment when he said, "Imagine that we were back before Sept. 11 and that a US president had looked at the information then available, gone before the Congress and the world and said, 'We need to invade Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban, and destroy the Al Qaida terrorist network.' Based on what little was known before Sept. 11, how many countries would have joined? Many? Any? Not likely."
The commission's hearings this week dwarfed all other news in the US. Even the IDF's successful strike against Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin was sidelined by the media's attention to the public accounting by top officials from the Clinton and Bush administrations for the decisions they made and did not make.
Commission members grilled these officials as to why they did not send in troops to attack Al Qaida and overthrow the Taliban before Sept. 11. Why did they not respond to the October 2000 attack against the USS Cole in Yemen? Why had they not killed Osama Bin Laden after the Al Qaida attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998? Why had they not armed Predator unmanned aerial vehicles to kill Bin Laden in 1999? Why had they not intercepted the flight that took bin Laden and his top lieutenants from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996?
Again and again, officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations explained they did not believe it was reasonable or possible to take military action and, besides, they were trying to act in other ways. The Clinton administration attempted to engage the Taliban. They sent top diplomats to Afghanistan to meet with Taliban officials. Taliban officials were brought to Washington to discuss Al Qaida. Attempts were made to encourage the Saudis and the Pakistanis to pressure the Taliban to cease support for Al Qaida.
At the end of the day, it all goes back to the same thing. There was a reality before Sept. 11 and there was a reality after Sept. 11. And they are not the same.
Much of the attention paid to the commission's hearings revolves around charges of politicization. There is clearly much of that. The commission has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats grill Bush officials aggressively and are relatively mild toward Clinton officials and the Republicans take just the opposite approach.
Yet, in spite of their conflicting party loyalties, commission members are unanimous in their view that the US is at war against Islamic terrorism. So united, the message that emanates from their questioning is that they are all Americans first and foremost and as Americans they wish to work together to learn from past mistakes in order to prevent future attacks against the US and its interests around the world.
Perhaps the main reason that the hearings did not descend into partisan finger-pointing is because after Sept. 11 both sides of the political divide in America understood the new reality. The Bush administration stopped accepting excuses for the Taliban and instead brought down the regime by force. It then invaded Iraq and took down the enemy regime of Saddam Hussein. Congress authorized use of military force to combat terrorists and their state sponsors, passed the Patriot Act and created the new Department of Homeland Security.
Today, all relevant US government resources are being used, both domestically and internationally, to combat terrorism and to help and indeed force other countries to combat terrorism. Rather than hunkering down behind its oceanic barriers, US forces operate from the Philippines to Uzbekistan. US diplomats engage, cajole and threaten foreign leaders around the world to take action against terror cells. And while actively remaking Iraqi society, the US is laying the groundwork for more concerted action against Syria and Iran.
Osama bin Laden, while an important target, is no longer considered a singular problem by anyone. As Albright put it, "Al Qaida is not a criminal gang that can simply be rounded up and put behind bars. It is the center of an ideological virus that has wholly perverted the minds of thousands and distorted the thinking of millions more. Until the right medicine is found, the virus will continue to spread."
As an Israeli watching the proceedings, I was struck by all of this. I was impressed by what appeared to be an honest reckoning by top US policy makers with what they did and did not accomplish. I was struck by the commissioners' questions. They were intelligent if sometimes belligerent. They were well thought out and stemmed from a clear recognition that the US is at war and must win.
I was equally struck with the sense that Israel, in contending with the Palestinian terror war, is still, after three and a half years, on pre-war footing. Rather than marshalling our military and diplomatic resources to root out terrorists who threaten us wherever they are, we engage in an endless policy of containment geared toward enabling an ultimate Israeli retreat.
On Monday the IDF finally killed Hamas terror chieftain Ahmed Yassin. In commenting on the hit, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that Yassin was "the Osama bin Laden of the Palestinian people." No doubt there is much truth to this statement. But what about Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Mullah Omar? What about the Palestinian Taliban, the Palestinian Authority?
Before Sept. 11, the Taliban told the Americans and their interlocutors that they had no control over bin Laden and that anyway, he was not a threat to the US. Sanctions on the Taliban, although leveled, were ineffective because the Pakistanis continued to arm them and supply them with oil, the United Arab Emirates allowed them to bank and travel abroad and the Saudis continued to finance them. On Sept. 12, 2001, American tolerance for this state of affairs was over.
Yet here in Israel it seems that our tolerance will never run out. We continue to distinguish Hamas from the PA even as PA security forces participate in Hamas attacks and carry them out themselves. We willingly finance the PA even though we know that they use their money to finance terrorists, run schools where children are taught to murder, and indeed build an entire society around the cause of our destruction.
We talk about engaging the PA in negotiations when its leaders embrace Yassin and condemn us for killing him. We speak of easing restrictions on Palestinian travel at roadblocks when Fatah entices prepubescent children to commit suicide while committing murder at roadblocks with promises of virgins in heaven. We speak of "containing" terrorism, when the Palestinians openly declare that their aim is the genocide of Jews and call on the entire Arab and Muslim world to join their fight against us.
As I watched the commission hearings, I tried to imagine similar hearings taking place in Israel. It was impossible. Here we have all the stars of Oslo, from Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin to Amnon Lipkin Shahak and Ami Ayalon still insisting after three and a half years that they were right and reality is wrong.
We have Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insisting that no concessions will be made in fighting terrorism at the same time that he insists on handing more territory over to terrorists and refuses to order the IDF to bring the sum total of its abilities to bear in destroying the Palestinians' ability to cause us harm.
No battle of ideas has been wag
ed to capture Palestinian hearts and minds by our intellectual elites who still embrace Oslo and think that we are to blame for our mass murder. No sustained initiative to stop international support for the PA has been waged by our diplomats who still insist that at some future date we will wish to negotiate with our Taliban and give them sovereignty.
Describing this state of affairs this week, IDF CGS Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon said, "When necessary – mainly following severe terrorist attacks – it is possible to change the nature of the campaign for a specific time period from a low intensity conflict in which the terrorists have a certain advantage, to a high intensity conflict in which it is easier for a regular military force to employ its power . However even such periods do not ensure a decisive victory."
Well of course not. If an offensive is not sustained until the enemy's forces and will to fight are broken, victory will remain elusive and the fight will go on forever.
This week OC Intelligence Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi Farkash dismissed Hamas's threats of heretofore unseen attacks in retaliation for Israel's killing of Yassin. He noted that to date, Hamas has used all its resources to attack Israel and that there was no reason to believe that these resources will fundamentally change in the aftermath of Yassin's death. That is, everyday our terrorist enemies muster all their capabilities to kill Israelis anyway they can.
It has been said that in Israel, everyday is Sept. 11.
The question is, when will our leaders finally take it upon themselves to marshal our resources and move us into a Sept. 12 reality?
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.