Going strategic

April 09, 2004

THE DEFENSE of the Bush administration as presented yesterday by Condoleezza Rice to the 9/11 commission seems to boil down to this: We were intent on the big picture, on finding a "strategic" way to deal with al-Qaida. The "tactical" approach -- that is, responding to specific terrorist incidents and threats -- was unsatisfactory.

The new president wanted to act on a grand scale.

Unfortunately, al-Qaida had its own plans and managed to sneak in an attack that killed 3,000 Americans in the space of a couple of hours.

Let's give Ms. Rice her due: Keeping the big picture in mind is no crime. Thinking in terms of a strategic context is no crime. Moreover, meaningless retaliations for terrorist acts -- on the order of the missile attacks on Afghanistan and the Sudan launched by President Clinton in 1998 following the African embassy bombings -- can be, as she pointed out, actually counter-productive.

That said, you don't want to get to the point where you can't see the trees for the forest. If you spend too much time on the big picture, you might just get lost in it.

In discussing the Bush administration's thinking on al-Qaida in its early months, Ms. Rice said that a policy on al-Qaida couldn't succeed until the administration had developed a more comprehensive policy on Afghanistan, and that a more comprehensive policy on Afghanistan couldn't succeed until the administration had developed a fundamentally new policy on Pakistan.

All this, she said (with reason), would have been a multi-year project.

"In retrospect," Slade Gorton, a Republican member of the commission, noted, "you didn't have time to do it."

Ms. Rice comes to public policy from a career in academe, and it's difficult not to see a certain academic overkill at work. There's nothing wrong with realizing you need a new and more thoughtful policy on Pakistan -- but it doesn't mean you can't pay attention to the little things, the tactical things, in the meantime.

Following 9/11, it seems the Bush administration went into gear but couldn't resist the allure, again, of the really big idea.

As Ms. Rice said yesterday, the choice facing her boss was whether to pursue "narrow victory" or "lasting peace;" whether he should launch an attack on al-Qaida or a broader war on terrorism.

He chose the second option in both cases, she said.

This was a mistake. A narrow victory over al-Qaida was exactly what the United States needed. If, from that, a campaign for a lasting peace and an end to terror could be built, all the better. But "lasting peace" is a slippery idea, at best. And, as Bob Kerrey, another member of the 9/11 commission pointed out, "terrorism is a tactic; it's not a war."

In any case, the United States was diverted before it could achieve a victory over al-Qaida. Actual terrorists were encamped in actual mountains in Afghanistan, but the United States let them slip out of its grasp when it went chasing after a "lasting peace" in Iraq.

The president, Ms. Rice said, disdained the idea that fighting terror was a matter of law enforcement -- maybe he's right, but it's not a matter of grand theory, either. It's a matter of dealing with the facts.

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