Responding to 9/11

For all the noise last week caused by former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke’s testimony before the 9/11 commission, it didn’t offer much that was new. Many others, including former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, already have noted that the Bush administration didn’t take terrorism and al-Qaeda seriously before Sept. 11, 2001. And, as Clarke acknowledged, even if terrorism had been Bush’s highest priority, it probably wouldn’t have stopped the attacks.

Clarke’s testimony was less revelation that reiteration: that the Bushites were obsessed with Saddam Hussein from the get-go and were looking for any way possible to link him to al-Qaeda so as to justify an invasion.

The more important questions that should be asked and answered are perhaps outside the commission’s scope: First, did the administration, in its obsession with Iraq, purposely mislead the American people to obtain their support for a war they otherwise would not have wanted, and was it truly a “last resort,” as the president had promised? Second, did invading Iraq help in the fight against Islamic jihadist terrorism, or did it hurt the cause by inflaming anti-American feeling in the Middle East, fostering terrorism in Iraq, diverting resources from fighting al-Qaeda and turning many of our allies against us?

Ultimately, American voters will answer these questions to their own satisfaction in November. George W. Bush is running for re-election as a “wartime president” whose response to an attack on our country showed great leadership and purpose. Certainly nobody is going to accuse him of being timid. But whether he showed wisdom and balance is another matter.

In the meantime, it’s clear after Madrid that the terrorists are driven by a blind religious fanaticism that can be stopped only by force. These guys are out to kill as many people as they can and wreak havoc on Western society, and the only way we can stop them is by going after them hammer and tongs. That will require the kind of multinational, cooperative approach that the go-it-alone cowboys in the Bush administration seem to despise. John Kerry needs to make the case that he can deliver.