Bush's failure of imagination

May 21, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - If you ask me, the press has this whole story about whether President Bush had a warning of a possible attack before Sept. 11, and didn't share it, upside-down.

The failure to prevent Sept. 11 was not a failure of intelligence or coordination. It was a failure of imagination. Even if all the raw intelligence signals had been shared among the FBI, the CIA and the White House, I'm convinced that there was no one there who would have put them all together, who would have imagined evil on the scale Osama bin Laden did.

Bin Laden was (or is) a unique character. He's a combination of Charles Manson and Jack Welch - a truly evil, twisted personality, but with the organizational skills of a top corporate manager, who translated his evil into a global campaign that rocked a superpower.

Imagining evil of this magnitude simply does not come naturally to the American character, which is why, even after we are repeatedly confronted with it, we keep reverting to our natural, naively optimistic selves. Because our open society is so much based on trust, and that trust is so hard-wired into our character and citizenry, we can't get rid of it - even when we so obviously should.

So someone drives a truck bomb into the U.S. embassy in Beirut, and we still don't really protect the Marine barracks there from a much bigger attack a few months later.

Someone blows up two U.S. embassies in East Africa with truck bombs, and we still don't imagine that someone would sail an exploding dinghy into a destroyer, the USS Cole, a few years later.

Someone tries to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 with a truck bomb, and the guy who did it tells us he had also wanted to slam a plane into the CIA, but we still couldn't imagine someone doing just that to the twin towers on Sept. 11.

So I don't fault the president for not having imagined evil of this magnitude. But given the increasingly lethal nature of terrorism, we are going to have to adapt. We need an "Office of Evil," whose job would be to constantly sift all intelligence data and imagine what the most twisted mind might be up to.

No, I don't blame President Bush at all for his failure to imagine evil. I blame him for something much worse: his failure to imagine good.

I blame him for squandering all the positive feeling in America after Sept. 11, particularly among young Americans who wanted to be drafted for a great project that would strengthen America in some lasting way - a Manhattan project for energy independence.

Such a project could have enlisted young people in a national movement for greater conservation and enlisted science and industry in a crash effort to produce enough renewable energy, efficiencies and domestic production to wean us gradually off oil imports.

Such a project not only would have made us safer by making us independent of countries that share none of our values, it also would also have made us safer by giving the world a much stronger reason to support our war on terrorism. There is no way we can be successful in this war without partners, and there is no way America will have lasting partners, especially in Europe, unless it is perceived as being the best global citizen it can be. And the best way to start conveying that would be by reducing our energy gluttony and ratifying the Kyoto treaty to reduce global warming.

We and our kids are going to regret this. Because a war on terrorism that is fought only by sending soldiers to Afghanistan or by tightening our borders will ultimately be unsatisfying. Such a war is important, but it can never be definitively won.

But a war on terrorism that, with some imagination, is broadly defined as making America safer by also making it better is a war that could be won. It's a war that could ensure that something lasting comes out of Sept. 11, other than longer lines at the airport - and that something would be enhanced respect for America and a country and a planet that would be greener, cleaner and safer in the broadest sense.

Too bad we don't have a president who could imagine that.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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