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Missed Opportunities of Sept. 11

By Robert Parry
January 13, 2002

The ouster of the Taliban and the disruption of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network may have bought the U.S. public some added safety four months after the Sept. 11 attacks. But those gains could prove illusory because George W. Bush has ignored the root causes of the violence.

Some of those root causes, such as the world's unequal economic development, may require long-term attention. But others could have been addressed in the aftermath of Sept. 11 as fitting responses to the atrocities.

Missed, for instance, was the opportunity to call on the American people to commit themselves to serious energy conservation and thus to free the hand of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. Bush also missed a unique opportunity to demand a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he has been silent about the danger of mixing politics with religious fundamentalism.

In each case, Bush displayed a lack of presidential vision or was frozen by the political and economic entanglements of his supporters.

Go Shopping

Perhaps most significantly, at a time when Americans were eager to do something meaningful as a way to pay tribute to the estimated 3,000 people who died in the terrorist attacks, Bush most memorably urged the U.S. public to go shopping and take vacations, a call made in a national address to Congress and now featured in tourist industry TV commercials.

The White House could have explained how the nation’s over-dependence on fossil fuels prevents the U.S. government from pressuring Arab states, especially the Saudi Arabians, to reform corrupt and authoritarian governments, one of most immediate causes for Islamic terrorism. But Bush has close ties to the oil industry, both in the United States and the Middle East.

The Saudi royal family and other undemocratic Arab regimes have long understood the leverage that oil gives them over the United States. The implicit deal was expressed bluntly in one State Department cable dated July 5, 1979.  “The basis of this relationship – our need for oil and the Saudi need for security – will continue,” predicted the cable. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Trick or Treason.]

To fulfill the U.S. side of the relationship, the CIA has collaborated with Saudi security forces by training palace guards and disrupting political opposition. The United States adopted similar relationships with other undemocratic leaders throughout the Middle East – from the Shah of Iran, before the 1979 Iranian revolution, to the Emir of Kuwait, who was reinstalled by a U.S.-led military force that reversed the Iraqi invasion in 1991.

In return for U.S.-supplied security, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms have kept the oil flowing. But they also paid what amounts to protection money to Islamic fundamentalist leaders who share bin Laden's hostility to the West. In effect, these "allies" subsidized bin Laden's attacks on Americans.

Home Video

In December, when a home-made videotape was released of bin Laden speaking to guests, some Saudi clerics mentioned on the tape were "fairly influential and well-known," according to Saudi experts quoted in The Wall Street Journal.

One Saudi religious leader, Suleiman al-Ulwan, who had been considered a moderate, is described on the tape as having issued a fatwa, or religious decree, that endorsed the Sept. 11 attacks and judged the dead Americans as not innocent. [WSJ, Dec. 19, 2001]

U.S. intelligence has been aware of the growing Saudi danger for years, at least since the 1990s when the Saudis frustrated U.S. efforts to investigate acts of terrorism emanating from Saudi soil. In 1995, when a U.S.-run military school in Riyadh was bombed and five Americans were killed, the FBI rushed in agents to question four suspects. Before the questioning could begin, the Saudi government beheaded the suspects.

A similar lack of Saudi cooperation frustrated the investigation into the Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 American soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia in 1998. [For a detailed account, see The New Yorker’s Jan. 14, 2002, article on former FBI counter-terrorist specialist John O’Neill, who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.]

Bin Laden himself is a Saudi whose family grew rich from construction contracts awarded by the Saudi king. He saw up close the decadence and corruption of the Saudi princes. These men preside over a system of strict Islamic law, even executing women who commit adultery, while the princes have wild parties during frequent trips to Europe and with Western women flown into the kingdom.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks also were Saudis. Yet U.S. diplomats still tiptoe around the issue of official Saudi complicity because the U.S. remains dependent on foreign oil and Saudi Arabia sits atop about a quarter of the world's proven supply.

Curbing U.S. energy use would give U.S. diplomacy crucial maneuvering room to confront the Saudi royal family. By raising fuel-efficiency standards for motor vehicles and investing in alternative energy sources, the U.S. government also could improve relations with Western allies concerned about U.S. inaction on global warming.

The American people were ready to make the sacrifice after Sept. 11 if Bush had asked. Instead, Bush made no conservation appeal to the public and continued to oppose legislation that would require better gas mileage in cars.

In his new budget, he moves to cut government spending on alternative fuels and scraps a program to introduce high-mileage cars over the next few years. Instead, Bush will propose long-range research on fuel-cell technology whose promise is a decade or more down the road.

“They’re letting Detroit off the hook on delivering real fuel-economy breakthroughs in the next few years,” said Dan Reicher, assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration. “This is in exchange for potential improvements that are more than a decade off.” [Washington Post, Jan. 10, 2002]

Oil Pals

Besides giving car manufacturers a pass, Bush’s decision means oil consumption will remain high, a boon to Bush’s political backers from the Texas oil fields and their Arab business pals.

“Many of the same American corporate executives who have reaped millions of dollars from arms and oil deals with the Saudi monarchy have served or currently serve at the highest levels of U.S. government,” the Boston Herald reported in an investigative series.

“Those lucrative financial relationships call into question the ability of America’s political elite to make tough foreign policy decisions about the kingdom that produced Osama bin Laden and is perhaps the biggest incubator for anti-Western Islamic terrorists,” the Herald article said. “Nowhere is the revolving U.S.-Saudi money wheel more evident than within President Bush’s own coterie of foreign policy advisers, starting with the president’s father, George H.W. Bush.”

The former president has served as a senior adviser at the Carlyle Group, an investment house which employed other key Bush aides. One Carlyle consultant was James A. Baker III, George W. Bush’s chief lawyer in the Florida recount battle and his father’s secretary of state. Another was Colin Powell, the younger Bush’s secretary of state.

One of the deals between the Carlyle Group and the Saudi monarchy was an “Economic Offset Program,” a kind of kickback scheme in which U.S. arms manufacturers selling weapons to Saudi Arabia return some money as contracts to Saudi businesses, most with links to the royal family. The Carlyle Group served as an adviser on this program, the Herald article reported. [Boston Herald, Dec. 11, 2001]

Bush Oil-igarchy

The Bush family itself has built its wealth through the oil industry, going back more than half a century when a young George H.W. Bush moved his family from Connecticut to the oil fields of Midland, Texas. [For details, see "The Bush Family Oil-igarchy" at]

George W. Bush has never forgotten the interests of those oil friends. During the first months of his administration, one of the few foreign policy initiatives that attracted his personal interest was the border conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a dispute that jeopardized the development of oil fields around the Caspian Sea.

The law firm representing the oil companies trying to extract that oil and build a pipeline was headed by James Baker, who had directed the bare-knuckled strategy for nailing down the Florida electoral votes that put Bush in the White House. The Bush administration’s coziness with the energy industry has been underscored again in the scandal surrounding the now-bankrupt Enron Corp.

Between the U.S. public’s dependence on foreign oil and the profits going to the U.S. economic elite in cahoots with oil-rich Arab sheiks, it may not be surprising that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has propped up a variety of anti-democratic and unsavory regimes.

This expedient view of democracy – that it is an important principle elsewhere but can’t be allowed to destabilize oil production – has given traction to anti-American charges in the Middle East that Washington is hypocritical about its most cherished principles or is simply prejudiced against Arabs.

Bush has avoided any public discussion of these thorny political realities in the Middle East. Instead, he has framed the post-Sept. 11 debate in the quasi-Christian language of a "crusade" to eradicate "evil," with bin Laden as the "evil one."

Politics & Religion

Another missed opportunity of Sept. 11 has come in Bush’s failure to explain the danger of mixing politics and religious fundamentalism.

Bush has urged Americans to avoid blaming all believers in Islam for the violence of some extremists. But Bush’s own close political ties to Christian fundamentalists are an obstacle for him in championing the American constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.

The Founding Fathers devised this principle out of a close historical understanding of the bloody religious wars of Europe’s Dark Ages, the Inquisitions and the clashes among Christian faiths, as well as between Christians and Muslims. The principle recognized that the government should allow all to worship as they choose without the government promoting one religion over others.

By building a wall between religion and government, the Founders enabled the United States to avoid the worst of the internecine conflicts that have marred other societies with diverse populations. The Founders’ genius has fresh relevance today as a blueprint for how to function successfully as a society of differing religious beliefs.

Bush, however, cannot espouse this important principle without offending many of his Christian Right backers who view the separation of church and state as a “myth” that must be overturned. They demand the imposition of “Christian law,” much as Islamic fundamentalists do when they insist that only the words of the Koran can form the basis of government.

So Bush fudged on the discussion of Islamic fundamentalism, confining his critique to charges that bin Laden had “hijacked” the religion. Bush failed to delve more deeply into the complicated problem of fundamentalism, which does not arise only in Islam.

Other Fundamentalisms 

Islamic fundamentalism is mirrored by Jewish and Christian fundamentalism, movements that profess similar though contradictory certainties about God’s choice of them as the guardians of all that is right and just.

One of the major sore points between the West and the Islamic world has been the activism of Jewish fundamentalists in Israel. By placing settlements in Palestinian areas of the West Bank and denying Palestinians basic human dignity, these fundamentalists claim they are exercising a divine right to the land.

Bush appears incapable of drawing a line against this fundamentalism, partly because the Israeli Right and the American Christian Right have been closely allied since the late 1970s and 1980s. Sharing an interest in advancing conservative power in the United States, the leaders of Israel’s Likud Party, such as Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, threw in their lot with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

The alliance changed the political reality in both countries. A new harsh tone, driven by the certainty of religious fundamentalism, entered the politics of both the United States and Israel.

“Liberal Jewish peace activists, both in Israel and America, were denounced as traitors, and new alliances were forged with the Christian Evangelical right in the United States,” wrote journalist Robert I. Friedman in his 1992 book, Zealots for Zion. “Israel’s popular TV advertising slogan, ‘Come to Israel, stay with friends,’ was drowned out by Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s cry, ‘We don’t care what the goyim think!’”

Theocratic Agendas

In the U.S., Christian fundamentalists also escalated their political activism in opposition to America’s secular political traditions. Falwell's Moral Majority and other Christian Right groups led campaigns to demonize feminists, homosexuals, “secular humanists” and liberals in general.

A key figure in supplying a mysterious flow of capital for this undertaking was the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a South Korean theocrat who espouses a totalitarian form of Christianity that would eradicate American democracy and place the world under his authority. While publicly avowing love for America, Moon privately tells his followers that America is “Satanic” and represents “Satan’s harvest.”

In one speech to his believers, Moon said his eventual dominance over the United States would be followed by the liquidation of American individualism. “Americans who continue to maintain their privacy and extreme individualism are foolish people,” Moon declared. “The world will reject Americans who continue to be so foolish. Once you have this great power of love, which is big enough to swallow entire America, there may be some individuals who complain inside your stomach. However, they will be digested.”

Since 1982, Moon has financed one of the conservative movement’s most influential media outlets, The Washington Times, as a way to build popular support for conservative politicians and undermine liberals and centrists. Moon also subsidized conservative direct-mail operations and sponsored conferences that paid money to influential politicians.

The Reagan-Bush administration worked closely with Moon’s apparatus. Ronald Reagan called Moon’s Times his “favorite” newspaper. After leaving office, George H.W. Bush gave paid speeches in support of Moon, including an appearance in Argentina where Bush hailed Moon’s Washington Times for bringing “sanity” to Washington and called Moon “the man with the vision.” [For details, see "The Dark Side of Rev. Moon" series at]

With devastating effect, Moon and more traditional Christian fundamentalists have targeted political leaders associated with “liberalism.” For instance, President Clinton was pursued for eight years in a relentless campaign to destroy him and his political influence.

Paula Jones

One of the Christian fundamentalist groups joining in the anti-Clinton assaults was the Rutherford Institute, which was inspired by the teachings of Rousas John Rushdoony, an advocate of Christian Reconstructionism, a movement that would replace democracy with “Biblical law.”

The Rutherford Institute financed the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit against Clinton. Rutherford’s leader John Whitehead, who appeared on cable news shows on behalf of Jones, has advocated the reorganization of the United States as a “Christian Nation.” In his book, The Separation Illusion, Whitehead opposes religious pluralism and argues that the doctrine of separation of church and state causes “the true God” to be an “outcast” and a “criminal.”  [See Frederick Clarkson’s “Paula’s Onward-Marching Christian Soldiers” at]

In his political rise, George W. Bush cultivated Christian fundamentalists by wearing his born-again religious fervor on his sleeve.

Bush courted Christian Right leaders with speeches at leading fundamentalist institutions such as Bob Jones University in South Carolina. He won Robertson’s key backing in defeating Sen. John McCain’s primary challenge.

Bush also enjoyed the strong support of Moon’s Washington Times, which aggressively promoted stories questioning Al Gore’s mental stability and his supposed tendency toward “delusions.” [See “Al Gore vs. the Media” at]

Since taking power in January, Bush has rewarded his Christian Right followers. He has chipped away at the church-state separation by touting his “faith-based” initiative to put government money into religious organizations engaged in social services.

Bush imposed strict limits on federally funded stem-cell research. He named fundamentalist-favorite John Ashcroft to be attorney general. And Bush has vowed to appoint conservative anti-abortion justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Separation of church and state may be a principle that shines with new relevance today amid the bloodshed that stretches from Jerusalem to Kabul to New York City. But Bush has failed to explain the principle's practical logic to the world.


Bush also has failed on a third front, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, again letting politics and ideology obscure a possible route to a solution.

During his first months in office, Bush repudiated Clinton’s Middle East policy of pressing for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Clinton’s policy had been staunchly opposed by right-wing commentators, such as the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer, a neoconservative supporter of Israel.

Bush chose to follow the hard-line strategy against the Palestinians charted by Krauthammer and others. Some foreign-policy sources say Bush picked that route out of a belief that his father lost in 1992, in part, because of Israel’s suspicion that the elder Bush privately favored the oil-rich Arab countries and couldn't be trusted.

Possibly with 2004 in mind, Bush cast aside any appearance of balance in the first several months of his presidency. Bush singled out Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat for primary blame for the continued Israeli-Palestinian violence and essentially let Likud leader Ariel Sharon off the hook.

Bush voiced no public sympathy for the worsening conditions of Palestinians living in the squalor of Gaza and other fenced-in areas. In early September, Bush ordered U.S. diplomats to walk out of a United Nations racism conference because of draft language criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

The tragedy of Sept. 11 did not alter Bush’s basic strategy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Americans might have favored a stern demand to both sides to accept a reasonable compromise that protected Israel’s security while granting the Palestinians an economically viable homeland – or perhaps a solution that forged a single secular state with constitutional protections for all religions.

But Bush made no such move. His emissaries continued to insist that cease-fires of specific lengths were necessary before more substantive negotiations. However, the time limits turned into deadlines for Islamic suicide bombers to inflict bloody outrages against Israeli civilians. The Israeli government then responded with helicopter attacks and targeted killings of Palestinian leaders.

Four months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush seems clueless about how to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Meanwhile, the post-Sept. 11 public pressure for action has dissipated and the tit-for-tat killings have taken on a grim look of business as usual.

Missed Warnings

Not only has Bush failed to address the larger threats that continue to give rise to terrorism, he did not protect the United States from the Sept. 11 attacks themselves.

Though columnist Andrew Sullivan and other conservative writers have gone to great lengths to blame former President Clinton for failing to stop the Sept. 11 attacks, the reality is that the Clinton administration did thwart previous attacks, including the millennium bombers, and waged covert campaigns to disrupt and kill leaders of al Qaeda.

While Clinton and his predecessors can be faulted for not doing more about terrorism, George W. Bush deserves blame for ignoring the more immediate dangers. It wasn't as if there were no warnings.

On Jan. 31, 2001, just 11 days after Bush's inauguration, former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman unveiled the final report of a blue-ribbon commission on terrorism that bluntly warned that urgent steps were needed to prevent an attack on U.S. cities.

"States, terrorists and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction, and some will use them," the report said. "Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers."

Hart specifically noted that the nation was vulnerable to "a weapon of mass destruction in a high-rise building."

Little, however, was done. Between a news media that still obsessed over "Clinton scandals," such as the later debunked stories of his aides "trashing" the White House, and a new Bush administration focused on domestic concerns, such as tax cuts, the warning drew scant attention.

When congressional hearings on the findings were set for early May, the Bush administration intervened to stop them, an article in the Columbia Journalism Review reported. Presumably, Bush did not want to seem behind the curve.

So, instead of embracing the Hart-Rudman findings and getting to work on the recommendations, Bush set up a White House committee, headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, to examine the issue again and submit a report in the fall.

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had joined President Clinton in creating the Hart-Rudman panel, acknowledged that Bush's actions delayed progress. "The administration actually slowed down response to Hart-Rudman when momentum was building in the spring," said Gingrich in an interview cited by the CJR study of press coverage of the terrorism issue. [See ]

Alarm Bells

By late spring, other alarm bells were ringing.

Credible evidence of what became the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks began pouring in to U.S. intelligence agencies. “It all came together in the third week of June,” said Richard Clarke, who was the White House coordinator for counter-terrorism. “The CIA’s view was that a major terrorist attack was coming in the next several weeks.” [See The New Yorker, Jan. 14, 2002]

The intelligence community also learned that two suspected terrorists had penetrated the United States, but the FBI could not find them.

As these dangers grew, Bush focused not on terrorism but on stem-cell research and other domestic issues that played well with his Christian Right allies. Bush took off the month of August for a working vacation that interspersed relaxation on his Texas ranch with his speech on stem-cell policy and trips to non-coastal cities to praise “heartland” values.

Former Sen. Hart tried to rekindle interest in what he viewed as the pressing threat of terrorism. On Sept, 6, he went to the White House for a meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and urged the White House to move faster. Rice agreed to pass on Hart's concerns to higher-ups. [See ]

Five days later, despite all the warnings, Bush and his administration were caught flatfooted. Two of America's greatest landmarks were leveled, with thousands of people killed. For the first time in history, the Pentagon was attacked and partially destroyed.

After the attacks, however, the nation rallied around Bush. He won praise for unleashing the U.S. military against Afghanistan and pulling together a coalition that backed the war. Ironically, the attacks that his administration had done nothing to stop boosted Bush's approval ratings to historically high levels.

God's Will

The news media's praise for Bush was unbridled. On Dec. 23, for instance, NBC's Tim Russert joined New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and First Lady Laura Bush in ruminating about whether divine intervention had put Bush in the White House to handle this crisis.

Russert asked Mrs. Bush if "in an extraordinary way, this is why he was elected." Mrs. Bush disagreed with Russert's suggestion that "God picks the president, which he doesn't."

Giuliani thought otherwise. "I do think, Mrs. Bush, that there was some divine guidance in the president being elected. I do," the mayor said. McCarrick also saw some larger purpose. "I think I don’t thoroughly agree with the first lady. I think that the president really, he was where he was when we needed him," the cardinal said. [For the full Meet the Press transcript, go to or see ]

Theologically speaking, it was less clear why God didn't simply let Bush actually be elected, rather than having him get a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to stop the vote count in Florida – or why God didn't give Bush the foresight to act on the Hart-Rudman warnings so he could thwart the terrorist attacks altogether.

More mundane realities can explain Bush's subsequent failure in squandering an unparalleled opportunity to take decisive action against some of the root causes that have fed – and will continue to feed – terrorism. The hard fact is that Bush, weighed down with political and ideological baggage, missed the moment.

In the 1980s, writing for the Associated Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. His latest book is Lost History, a study of how propaganda has altered Americans' understanding of their recent history. 

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