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The What-If's of Sept. 11

By Robert Parry
October 18, 2001

Since Sept. 11, the trivial pursuits of American politics have been set aside. Even the national news media, which obsessed about Gary Condit for most of the summer, has put on a serious face.

There’s been nothing comparable to the “wag the dog” pundit prattle that undercut President Clinton in 1998 when he first went after Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terror network.

But there’s also been little or no reflection about how the feckless behavior of Washington’s political-journalistic elites over the past decade contributed to the deadly crisis the world is now facing. There’s been little or no self-criticism for letting the problems of the Middle East fester while pundits and journalists romped through juicier stories of Paula, Monica, JonBenet and Chandra.

One indictment of today’s political-journalistic elites is the undeniable fact that on Sept. 11, a blind-sided American people knew far more about Chandra Levy’s disappearance, JonBenet Ramsey’s death, Paula Jones’ allegations and Monica Lewinsky’s sexual techniques than they knew about the roiling political conflicts of the Middle East.

Today’s changed tone also doesn’t mean that any long-term lessons have been learned. Indeed, the media’s patriotic uniformity today can be viewed as a kind of mirror image of yesterday’s trivia-obsessed herd mentality, even starring the same TV talking heads.

Just as few journalists bucked the tabloid trend before, few will risk their careers now by offering up anything but adulation for George W. Bush’s post-attack performance, though it’s arguably as shaky as his stewardship of the country prior to Sept. 11.

Bush’s flip-flops on core foreign-policy positions go virtually unnoticed. For instance, his long-standing disdain for Bill Clinton-style “nation building” – repeated as late as Sept. 25 when Bush declared “We’re not into nation building” – transformed into a sudden commitment to nation building in Afghanistan, pronounced at his Oct. 11 news conference.

“We should not just simply leave after a military objective has been achieved,” Bush said, foreseeing a possible United Nations role in constructing a stable Afghanistan. Bush made this 180-degree turn without acknowledging that he had made great political hay out of ridiculing the same nation-building position that he was now embracing.

'Evil One'

Stylistically, Bush’s Oct. 11 news conference also was marked by his usual disjointed performance. He mixed a disembodied somberness during an opening speech, with abrupt flashes of folksiness, calling bin Laden “the evil one” and giving a flip response to a question about what kind of suspicious behavior Americans should be on the lookout for.

“If you find a person that you’ve never seen before getting in a crop-duster that doesn’t belong to you, report it,” he responded with a chortle, apparently unconcerned that the sentence made no sense.

While some viewers found Bush’s behavior jarring and unsettling, especially compared to the polished oratory of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other world leaders, NBC’s Tim Russert and other American commentators hailed Bush’s press conference as a bravura performance. The New York Times’ headline read: “To Reassure World, Bush Flies Confidently and Forcefully Without a Net.” [NYT, Oct. 12, 2001]

Beyond reassuring Americans about their leader’s stability in a time of crisis, major news organizations also sought to avoid fresh doubts about his legitimacy. Leading news outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, postponed indefinitely the results of a comprehensive examination of about 175,000 disputed ballots cast in Florida last November.

Earlier press examinations of the Florida ballots, when viewed together, suggested that Democrat Al Gore would have won the state and thus the White House, under three of four standards for judging votes.

But in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy, the vote-counting consortium of major news organizations chose not to revisit the issue, citing limitations on manpower and space. Though the news outlets insisted they had no idea what the Florida recount results were, some sources claimed the big newspapers feared the fallout if their findings pointed to Gore as the rightful winner.

Court Intrigue

If that is what the recount study were to show, it also might have stirred new interest in a story by Newsweek correspondent David A. Kaplan.

He reported that the U.S. Supreme Court nearly decided in December that a full and fair recount in Florida, with a common standard for counting disputed ballots, was the only proper decision. Justice David Souter felt he was on the verge of convincing swing vote Anthony Kennedy to adopt that position, which already had the support of four other justices, Kaplan wrote.

History might have been changed if Souter had succeeded. Instead, Kennedy stayed with the four conservative Republicans who handed Bush the presidency by blocking a recount of Florida ballots in a 5-4 decision. Kaplan’s story was beginning to gain public interest when the terrorists struck on Sept. 11. [See Newsweek, Sept. 17, 2001, which went on sale days about a week earlier.]

Doubts about the outcome of Election 2000 have contributed to other what-if questions, circulating in private conversations and on the Internet, though not in the mainstream press.

Those questions include: Was Bush’s ascension to power somehow connected to the Sept. 11 attacks, given his father’s close ties to the Persian Gulf’s oil sheikdoms that are bin Laden’s principal targets? Did those Bush family relationships and America’s diminished image as a beacon of democracy, following the election debacle, embolden the terrorists to strike?

Though it’s impossible to know how a different history might have played out, the weight of the evidence suggests that the terrorist attacks would have gone forward regardless of who was president.

'Wag the Dog'

It can be argued that Bush’s family background and the policies of his first seven months in office worsened an already tense situation in the Middle East. But militant Islamic fundamentalists despised Bill Clinton as well as George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush. All three were put on a hit list read by bin Laden’s spokesman, Suleiman Abu Gheith, on Oct. 13, according to CNN.

In 1998, Clinton tried to kill bin Laden in retaliation for bombing American targets in Africa. Cruise missiles hit an al Qaeda training base in Afghanistan, killing some inhabitants but missing bin Laden. Those were the attacks, along with the war in Kosovo, that prompted smirking media commentaries about Clinton trying to distract attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal with a “wag the dog” public-relations ploy.

It’s also recently been revealed that Clinton authorized covert plots aimed at eliminating bin Laden and his inner circle. The United States and Uzbekistan collaborated on covert operations against Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban regime and its terrorist allies for at least two years, the Washington Post reported on Oct. 14.

Islamic militants condemned Clinton, too, for maintaining President George H.W. Bush’s embargo against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a policy that has been blamed for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children due to poor medical treatment and malnutrition.

Clinton also continued the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s homeland. Bin Laden has denounced the presence of those U.S. troops and their defense of the corrupt Saudi royal family. Presumably, the hatred of Clinton would have carried over to his vice president, Al Gore.

It’s clear, too, that bin Laden’s network planned attacks against targets inside the United States during the Clinton-Gore administration, but was thwarted by effective police work. One foiled plot planned to detonate explosions during the millennial celebrations at the start of 2000.

Flying Lessons

Another argument for believing that the Sept. 11 attack would have happened anyway is that its early planning dated back about two years, as several of the conspirators arrived in the United States to take flying lessons.

The initial bank transfer of $100,000 was sent to Mohammed Atta, the presumed ringleader of the hijackings, in June 2000. [Wall Street Journal, Oct. 16, 2001] At that point, Bush may have led in opinion polls, but his selection as president was not settled until the Supreme Court ruling on Dec. 12.

On the other hand, a case can be made that Bush’s actions as president – and his father’s complicated entanglements with Middle Eastern intrigue over the past quarter century – could have contributed to the terrorists’ determination to see the Sept. 11 project through to its tragic conclusion .

One of the assault’s chief tactical difficulties would have been assuring the continued fervor of all 19  participants in the months leading up to the attack.

No previous terrorist attack had rivaled the Sept. 11 operation in the need for choreographed coordination among four separate groups mounting four distinct terrorist operations, the hijacking of four different planes. A single lapse could have foiled the entire operation.


Assuming all 19 men understood the full scope of the plan, the attacks required their solid determination to slash the throats of strangers, aim the jetliners at the targets, and murder large numbers of innocent people, including Muslims. The attackers also faced certain death themselves.

To keep this large a group committed to this extraordinary course of action could not have been easy, even if the 19 participants were carefully selected. If a single attacker wavered and betrayed the operation, the attacks could have been stopped.

The terrorists also seemed divided into two operational groups, those who had trained as pilots, who arrived earlier, and the musclemen, who entered the United States later, around June 2001.

Some participants seemed to have known each other for years, while others appeared to be relative newcomers with no known history in militant activities. According to witnesses who knew the men, some were anti-American but others seemed to like the United States and Americans. [WSJ, Oct. 16, 2001]

Middle Eastern events – whether positive or negative – might have shaken or reinforced their level of commitment. For instance, it is unclear whether a comprehensive peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians might have dissuaded some of the attackers from their course of action.

For his part, Gore likely would have continued some form of Clinton’s strategy of pushing the Israelis and the Palestinians toward a negotiated settlement – while trying to present the United States as a negotiating partner that could be trusted by both sides. However, Islamic militants surely viewed Gore and his Jewish running mate, Joe Lieberman, with great suspicion.

Bush Baggage

Bush carried a different kind of baggage as far as the militants were concerned.

Many Middle Easterners view his father as the classic Western manipulator of events. The elder Bush earned this reputation from his career in the oil business, his year running the CIA, the Reagan-Bush administration’s meddling in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, and his own his presidency, which reached its zenith in 1991 with the bloody rout of Iraqi forces in Kuwait and the triumphal celebrations back home.

The elder Bush is seen as especially close to the Saudi royal family and other oil-rich sheiks. They have done lucrative business with Bush’s inner circle both before and after the first Bush presidency. The ascendance of Bush’s son, especially through an undemocratic process in the United States, may have exacerbated concerns among dissidents in Saudi Arabia and other oil states.

Once in office, George W. Bush confirmed many of the suspicions about him, by adopting what was viewed as an arrogant unilateralist foreign policy that set protecting U.S. interests, such as oil supplies, above all else. Through his first several months, Bush made clear that Washington would do whatever it felt was in its interests with little regard to the sensibilities of the rest of the world.

Bush also repudiated Clinton’s Middle East negotiations. Beyond disinterest in an active U.S. role in the peace process, Bush showed open disdain for the Palestinian cause. As the violence worsened and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unleashed U.S.-built helicopter gunships against Palestinian targets, the Bush administration issued only muted protests.

Personally, Bush toed a line drawn by conservative American commentators, such as Charles Krauthammer and Michael Kelly, publicly blaming Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat for the escalation in violence. In early September, when a United Nations conference on racism debated an Arab resolution likening Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to racism, Bush ordered his diplomats to walk out, rather than fight for more moderate language.

Bush may have thought his tough stance against the Palestinians was playing well to his conservative base at home. But he also offended many Muslims who saw the comments as proof of Washington’s anti-Palestinian bias.

If any of the 19 terrorists preparing to die on Sept. 11 were inclined toward doubts about their mission – if there was a weakest link in the conspiracy – that person received little reason for second thoughts from Bush’s Middle East policy over the summer.

Window of Opportunity

The other what-if imponderable about Sept. 11 is whether the bureaucratic transition in the United States created its own window of opportunity for the terrorists.

After gaining the presidency as the first popular-vote loser in more than a century, Bush rebuffed calls for a bipartisan administration, choosing to staff his new government with staunchly conservative figures who had little respect for their Democratic predecessors.

In his first seven months in office, Bush also focused on domestic policy, primarily his $1.3 trillion tax cut, while investing his personal attention heavily on the issue of stem-cell research. In August, he retreated to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for a working vacation that mixed relaxation with his stem-cell policy speech and visits to several cities to promote what he called “heartland values.”

Before Sept. 11, Bush’s biggest foreign policy initiative was his determination to implement Ronald Reagan’s dream of a national missile shield, even in the face of critics who argued that the far-greater danger was from a non-missile terrorist attack. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other administration officials assured Congress that they were not neglecting these so-called “asymmetrical threats.”

Without doubt, the Bush administration was unprepared for Sept. 11, though a Gore administration might have been caught just as flatfooted.

Lessons Learned?

A separate historical question is whether the slaughter of thousands of people in New York City and at the Pentagon has taught the political and media players of Washington any enduring lessons about their responsibilities to the nation – and the importance of serious information about world problems.

As for Bush, he may deserve some commendation for turning a deaf ear to the most belligerent calls for a widespread war against a string of Middle Eastern governments, a course favored by conservative columnists such as Krauthammer and Kelly.

For the moment, Bush seems to have accepted the advice of more seasoned foreign-policy hands who stress the need for a coalition strategy to isolate and punish al Qaeda and its Afghan Taliban protectors.

But many U.S. allies wonder if Bush really has jettisoned the unilateralist hubris that colored his first seven-plus months in office. In describing his post-Sept. 11 policy to Congress, Bush asserted that the world was divided into countries that are “with us” and thus worthy of U.S. friendship or “with the terrorists” and thus deserving of destruction, with Washington the sole judge and jury.

“Close U.S. allies and many inside the administration itself are uncertain whether the doctrine really means what it appears to say – that the United States will be the unilateral judge of whether a country is supporting terrorism, and will determine the appropriate methods, including the use of military force, to impose behavioral change,” wrote Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post on Oct. 16.

Those worries are well grounded. On the issue of terrorism, Washington has long subordinated facts to ideology and politics, giving the world little confidence that the U.S. selection of countries deserving retribution would be fair.

These ideological judgments are demonstrated by this year's choice of seven nations that the State Department officially designated terrorist. One is Cuba, though the State Department report cites no examples of Fidel Castro’s government engaging in terrorism, accusing it only of providing safe haven to alleged terrorists from the Basque region of Spain and having links to guerrilla groups in Colombia.

By contrast, the State Department’s terrorist list did not include Afghanistan. This glaring omission comes although the Taliban regime was aiding and abetting bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, which was believed responsible for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and was allegedly behind terrorist plots aimed at the United States.

Fingering Afghanistan, however, might have embarrassed the Saudis, the Pakistanis and the CIA, all of which had a hand in creating the current mess in that country.

As for the national news media, there’s little or no indication that the talking heads feel any remorse about fiddling for a decade – concentrating on the most trivial of political issues – while a strategic part of the world smoldered.

Nor is there much reason for optimism that journalists now will seize this opportunity to unravel, finally, the hidden history of the U.S. relationships in the Middle East, a history that might cast a dark shadow over the political legacy of the Bush family.

Most likely, the American people can expect one more drawn-out morality play, with white hat George W. Bush “smoking out” black hat Osama bin Laden.

In the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra scandal for the Associated Press and Newsweek.

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