Deconstructing disaster

March 24, 2004

DIPLOMACY DIDN'T work.

Intelligence wasn't good enough for a targeted strike.

And the American people were judged unwilling to support broader military action against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan until after he masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

There is a predictably large quotient of excusifying in the testimony yesterday and today at hearings conducted by the bipartisan, independent commission sifting through the embers of the 9/11 disaster. It's not realistic, perhaps, to expect any of the high-ranking Clinton and Bush administration officials appearing before the panel to admit they were caught off guard and asleep at the switch - but it would be useful for all involved to focus less on who's to blame and more on missteps that can be avoided in the future.

That may not be easy in an election year when President Bush is seeking a second term based in large part on his handling of the attacks and their aftermath. The commission's work really isn't about him, though. It's bigger than any individual or administration.

For example, we learned after the attacks of the urgent need for greater coordination between various intelligence agencies as well as the critical value of human sources. Fighting such elusive and shadowy enemies as al-Qaida requires an entirely different approach to intelligence from the old Cold War model.

A trickier issue is assessing consent of the governed for military action. Clinton administration officials recalled with irony that they were being accused of following the movie script for Wag the Dog when they bombed a pharmaceutical factory allegedly connected to bin Laden at a time when Mr. Clinton was eager to shift attention away from a personal scandal. A more ambitious strike then seemed unthinkable, his aides said.

For Mr. Bush, the issue is whether he missed the clues on al-Qaida, then exploited his 9/11 mandate to launch a premeditated and ill-advised war against Iraq.

Two Pentagon chiefs, Donald H. Rumsfeld and his predecessor, William S. Cohen, yesterday offered the most promising prescriptions for long-term peace. Each suggested that the United States put more focus on "winning the war of ideas" with young people around the world - particularly in the Middle East - instead of sowing seeds of American hatred.

If the U.S. government were actually to follow such a policy, it might be the most important step this country could take to ensure its own safety.

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