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Don't blame our intelligence agencies -- blame our unprincipled foreign policy

By Onkar Ghate
web posted September 30, 2002

As Congress calls for the creation of an independent panel to investigate possible pre-September 11 "lapses" by intelligence and other government agencies, it ignores the fundamental issue. If our politicians truly wished to learn from history, they would instead demand investigation of the ideas that drove America's foreign policy. For what made September 11 possible was a failure not by the FBI--but by the accommodating, range-of-the-moment, unprincipled foreign policy that has shaped our decisions for decades.

The first attack on America by Islamic extremists
The first attack on America by Islamic extremists

September 11 was not the first time America was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists engaged in "holy war" against us. In 1979 theocratic Iran--which has spearheaded the "Islamic Revolution"--stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 54 Americans hostage for over a year. In 1983 the Syrian- and Iranian-backed group Hezbollah bombed a U.S. marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 servicemen while they slept; the explosives came from Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. In 1998 al-Qaida blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 individuals. In 2000 al-Qaida bombed the USS Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors.

So we already knew that al-Qaida was actively engaged in attacking Americans. We even had evidence that agents connected to al-Qaida had been responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. And we knew in 1996 that bin Laden had made an overt declaration of war against the "Satan" America.

But how did America react? Did we adopt a principled approach and identify the fact that we were faced with a deadly threat from an ideological foe? Did we launch systematic counterattacks to wipe out such enemy organizations as al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Fatah? Did we seek to eliminate enemy states like Iran and Syria and Iraq? No--our responses were short-sighted and self-contradictory.

For instance, we initially expelled Iranian diplomats--but later sought an appeasing rapprochement with that ayatollah-led government. We intermittently cut off trade with Iran--but secretly negotiated weapons-for-hostages deals. When Israel had the courage to enter Lebanon in 1982 to destroy the PLO, we refused to uncompromisingly support our ally and instead brokered the killers' release. And with respect to al-Qaida, we dropped a perfunctory bomb or two on one of its suspected camps, while our compliant diplomats waited for al-Qaida's terrorist attacks to fade from the headlines.

At home, we treated our attackers as if they were isolated criminals rather than soldiers engaged in battle against us. In 1941 we did not attempt to indict the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor--we declared war on the source. Yet we have spent millions trying to indict specific terrorists--while we have ignored their masters.

Despite emphatic pronouncements from Islamic leaders about a "jihad" against America, our political leaders failed to grasp the ideology that seeks our destruction. This left them unable to target that enemy's armed combatants--in Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia--and the governments that assist them. Is it any wonder then that, although our intelligence agencies prevented many planned attacks, they could not prevent them all?

Unfortunately, little has changed since September 11. Our politicians' actions remain hopelessly unprincipled. Despite President Bush's rhetoric about an "axis of evil," he has attacked only one country, Afghanistan, to stop one individual, bin Laden. And even that action was undertaken only haltingly. Morally unsure of his decision to protect American lives by wiping out the threat in Afghanistan, Bush feared world disapproval over civilian casualties. Consequently, he reined in the military forces and allowed numerous Taliban and al-Qaida fighters to escape. Similarly, Bush allows their comrades-in-arms in the Mideast to go unharmed. He continues to pretend that those attacking Israel--and who have attacked Americans in the past and will try again in the future--are, somehow, different from the killers in Afghanistan.

Instead of taking consistent, principled action to destroy our terrorist adversaries, our politicians focus on details like increasing airport security, reorganizing government bureaucracies and scrutinizing FBI memos. Thus, too unprincipled to identify the enemy and wage all-out war, but not yet completely blind to their own ineffectualness, our leaders resignedly admit that there will be more terrorists attacks on U.S. soil.

There is only one way to prevent a future September 11: by identifying and then rooting out the amoral, pragmatic expediency that now dominates our government.

Onkar Ghate, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a resident fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Send comments to reaction@aynrand.org.

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