Trail Mix: Forgotten Lessons

Colin Powell and Richard Armitage are two of the most relaxed, accomplished performers you're likely to witness at any hearing on Capitol Hill. But inside the Hart Senate building at the 9/11 commission today, they looked like they were chewing lemons. Powell--who normally indulges in happy chit-chat in Congress--read line-by-line from his prepared script even though his interrogators admitted they were among his biggest personal fans. Armitage, Powell's deputy at the State Department, simply glowered his way through the session--especially when he was asked to go back and urge Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security advisor, to answer questions in public.

Why the sour faces? It wasn't just the nature of the questions, cutting to the heart of the dreadful events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania more than two years ago. In the full glare of the nation's television cameras, Powell and Armitage found themselves on the frontlines of the general election taking fire on the most emotional issue in recent political history. The contrast with the former officials from the Clinton years was hard to miss. Relaxed and free-flowing, the Clinton officials looked and sounded far less defensive--and far more self-critical, for that matter--than their successors.

Of course, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her ex-counterpart at Defense, William Cohen, are not running for re-election. Yet their comfort level was based on something more than just a lack of election pressure. Albright was pressed as to why the Clinton administration failed to strike decisively against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Her response was simple: "It would be very hard, pre-9/11, to have persuaded anybody that an invasion of Afghanistan was appropriate. It did take the mega-shock, unfortunately of 9/11 to make people understand the considerable threat."

Politics has indeed changed fundamentally in the last five years. At the time of President Clinton's biggest strikes against Al Qaeda, in August 1998, there were three words on most people's minds: "Wag the Dog." After Clinton ordered air strikes on the terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceuticals factory in Sudan, many people thought of that Robert de Niro movie about a struggling president and an obscure foreign war. Reporters asked Secretary Cohen and Clinton investigator Kenneth Starr about the air strikes and the movie. Republican senators said they preferred not to believe the wag the dog theory, but bemoaned how the presidency had been tarnished by Clinton's sexual misconduct. (This was the same period when Saddam Hussein forced the United Nations' weapons inspectors out of Iraq, and the cease-fire agreements of the first Gulf War effectively collapsed.)

If we've learned anything from the Lewinsky era, it's surely that domestic politics and counter-terrorism do not mix well. Terrorists may have their own political targets, but the response to terrorists is best handled without partisan bickering or the gut-level distrust of, say, impeachment or an election season. Yet this week's political drama suggests those lessons have been rapidly forgotten.

Richard Clarke's revelations about President Bush's war on terror--his alleged failure in focusing on Al Qaeda early and his obsession with Iraq later--opened the gates of campaign hell. From Rice's unusually aggressive TV interviews to the trashing of Clarke--the counter-terrorism chief of the national-security staff held over from the Clinton years--by the White House press secretary, it's clear the general election has subsumed the war on terror. From here to November, it will be almost impossible to take anti-terrorist measures without political mud-wrestling. You could blame Clarke for starting all this with the timing of his just-released book, as the White House has done. Or you could blame the White House for politicizing the war on terror--and the war in Iraq--in 2002 during the Congressional mid-term elections. But the question of who started the fight is not nearly as important as how it's fought.

Just look at the incendiary mixture of politics and counter-terrorism in Spain or Israel. What finished the conservatives in Madrid was not the bloody impact of the train bombings themselves. It was the government's inept attempts to take political advantage of the massacre, by blaming the attacks on the wrong terrorists. In the Middle East, Ariel Sharon's legitimate fight against terrorists is constantly undermined by the suggestion that he is appeasing his nationalist coalition partners. If he wanted to kill the leadership of Hamas, why not do so earlier? Sharon's decision to assassinate Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader, looks as if it's timed to calm right-wing opposition to his promised withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza. Fighting terrorists is hard enough without party politics muddying the water.

So what should we make of Richard Clarke's book and the work of the 9/11 commission as the general election rumbles along?

First, the Kerry campaign is lucky to have others--especially ex-administration officials--pointing the finger at the Bush White House. Sadly for the Bush-Cheney campaign, there is no such luxury. Nobody gains from the finger-pointing: they all look bad.

Second, the White House strategy of trashing Clarke is not nearly as effective as its trashing of John Kerry. Clarke is not an elected politician. He's a highly-respected counter-terrorism official who was trusted inside the Bush White House, as he was through administrations stretching back to the Reagan years. As a serious professional, and a registered Republican in 2000, Clarke is not easy to dismiss.

Most important of all, this week marks the start of a debate that will extend through the fall to the general election itself. The Bush campaign wanted to campaign in September and October on its record of fighting the war on terror and the war in Iraq--that's why it's holding its nominating convention in New York so close to the 9/11 anniversary. How both campaigns handle this debate is their biggest test of character in the entire election season. The burden on Team Bush is to fight the war about the war without alienating the rest of the nation. The burden on Team Kerry is to wage the same war by showing how it could lead the fight with more success. There is no more important debate in America--and none that is more likely to descend into pointless name-calling.