As Republicans Posture, Take a Moment to Remember How Wrong They Were On Terrorism

One side effect of a horrific terrorist attack is that it tends to push other important emerging stories far under the radar. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but in the context of the attacks on Paris and Beirut it would be remiss to let slide one of this week’s most important stories: the way conservative politicians completely dropped the ball on terrorism in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks.

New evidence was revealed indicated just how inept the Bush Administration was in overlooking the threat of terrorism in its desperate desire to reignite a Cold War with Russia and China and rid the world of pesky anti-American secular tyrants. At the time, terrorism was seen as almost a joke, reinforced by Hollywood stereotypes of radical leftists:

The drama of failed warnings began when Tenet and Black pitched a plan, in the spring of 2001, called “the Blue Sky paper” to Bush’s new national security team. It called for a covert CIA and military campaign to end the Al Qaeda threat—“getting into the Afghan sanctuary, launching a paramilitary operation, creating a bridge with Uzbekistan.” “And the word back,” says Tenet, “‘was ‘we’re not quite ready to consider this. We don’t want the clock to start ticking.’” (Translation: they did not want a paper trail to show that they’d been warned.) Black, a charismatic ex-operative who had helped the French arrest the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, says the Bush team just didn’t get the new threat: “I think they were mentally stuck back eight years [before]. They were used to terrorists being Euro-lefties—they drink champagne by night, blow things up during the day, how bad can this be? And it was a very difficult sell to communicate the urgency to this.”

And we know why. As Peter Bergen wrote long ago here at Washington Monthly:

The short answer is: They were in denial. Bush administration officials entered office believing that the great threats facing the country were a remilitarized China and a few, festering rogue states, especially Iraq–states that might try to challenge American hegemony with long-range missiles or, secondarily, by supporting terrorists. Al Qaeda not only didn’t fit into this worldview, it also posed a direct challenge to it. If a network of stateless terrorists using truck bombs and other low-tech weapons represented the top threat to America’s physical security, it would have been hard to argue that our chief security strategy should be to thwart states by building a missile defense–a goal to which Republican hawks had been committed for nearly two decades.
In other words, bin Laden and al Qaeda were politically and ideologically inconvenient and impossible to square with the Bush worldview–a textbook case of cognitive dissonance.

As the Republican establishment and candidates for president ramp up their aggressive rhetoric, we must remember that these are the same people who were focused on entirely the wrong enemies before the attacks in their attempts to seem muscular in their foreign policy. All the posturing and manipulative attempts to control world events turned out to be counterproductive and foolish.

And, of course, the invasion of Iraq made the situation exponentially worse, leading directly to the crisis we face with ISIS today.

And we should be highly wary of listening to anything they have to say on foreign policy again.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.