April 12, 2004,
Last week marked the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. In a mere few months time nearly one million Tutsis were systematically slaughtered by organized Hutu mobs. Nearly everyone in the American government, all the way up to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President Bill Clinton, knew exactly what was going on. Yet they did absolutely nothing. Clinton later apologized. The United Nations also knew exactly what was happening, yet it evacuated its "peace-keeping" troops at the start of the bloodshed. The European governments also knew, and stood on the sidelines.
It's worth recalling this sorrowful episode as the Democratic party heatedly and cynically accuses President George W. Bush of not having done enough to prevent the September 11 attacks. With Richard Clark as ringmaster, and candidate John Kerry gleefully following along, the charge is being made that Bush was somehow lackadaisical in his defense of the country during his first eight months in office. This is the "responsible" version of an earlier charge made that Bush had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Both accusations are outrageous.
That America was caught off-guard on September 11 is almost too obvious to waste a spot of ink (or pixel) on. It was the most successful surprise attack on American soil bar none. It's a day that will live in infamy. Certainly, it was a failure of intelligence, a bad case of bureaucratic inertia and miscommunication, not to mention confused defense priorities. It was also much more than that. Our national character was tested and found wanting. We were all much too busy watching our stock portfolios amass while happily surfing the Web to bother ourselves about robed madmen. We were the last guys standing at history's zenith or so we congratulated ourselves.
It's unlikely the 9/11 independent commission will shed much light on this more fundamental national failing. The only important question today is which political party is prepared to take the lead in making sure such attacks never happen again, for the next strike will surely be far more lethal. And this is as much a question of national renewal as national defense.
So let's again remind ourselves of some basic history. For the eight years (not eight months) leading up to the September 11 attacks the nation's defense was in Clinton's hands. During this period al Qaeda repeatedly struck the United States. The al Qaeda network and the terrorist challenge essentially rose to power under Bill Clinton's watch. One month after Clinton entered office, terrorists bombed the World Trade Center. More atrocities followed in short order: American installations in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996 were attacked, our embassies in East Africa were bombed in 1998, and the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 was attacked. Where was Clinton? Where were the Democrats as the al Qaeda storm gathered?
It's often said that the Democratic party is the party of liberal internationalism. We have grown accustomed to the idea that Democrats are for doing good in the world. A Democratic foreign policy is thought to be concerned not so much with America's interests as with humanity's cause.
But this view of the Democrats is not exactly right. The truth is the Democratic party is not overly concerned with either the cause of humanity or America's fundamental security interests. What guides them most is a deeply corrosive skepticism of American power. They remain the "blame America first" crowd. A Democrat administration was no more inclined to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan or to make war on its far-flung network than to stop the killing in Rwanda.
Today, American GIs and other personnel are fighting bravely in Iraq. Some are dying terrible deaths. The Democrats say it's all for naught. They say Bush toppled Iraq for its oil, or to avenge his father, or to aid his reelection, or to divert attention from 9/11 and his other failures in the war on terror. This is all patent nonsense.
Saddam Hussein was a bloodthirsty genocidal despot. There is no other way of describing him honestly in the English language. America's Democratic party, the United Nations, "Old Europe" all were unwilling to risk much in order to put an end to his atrocities. It was a case of the Rwanda syndrome. The Democrats' humanitarian good will was kept in check by their anti-Americanism.
It's also the case that Saddam Hussein, like al Qaeda, bore extreme ill-intent toward the United States. This too was plainly obvious to all objective observers. Little guessing about how to "connect the dots" was needed. It was an imperative, so to speak, that the 9/11 commission not be followed a few years hence by a "Hussein commission."
America's cause, in the particular case of Iraq, was humanity's. The Democrats, however, want little part of either. That salient fact should be kept in mind as we reflect in this season of recrimination and the ten-year-long shadow of the Rwanda genocide on the worrisome causes and frightful consequences of American passivity.
Adam Wolfson is editor of The Public Interest.