Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Political Realism: A Culprit for the 9/11 Attacks

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Political Realism: A Culprit for the 9/11 Attacks

Article excerpt

In the summer of 2004, the US National Committee on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States ("the 9/11 Commission") released its final report explaining why the United States was blindsided by Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001, and what improvements the United States could make to reduce the chances of another catastrophic terrorist attack on US soil. The Commission went to great lengths to identify the shortcomings of the US governmental system that allowed the attacks to occur. Despite the Commission's efforts, one important topic remained outside the scope of their report: the intellectual mindset that guides US national security strategy. The United States must re-evaluate and modify the political theories that guided the national security leadership on the eve of September 11 if it is to be effective in deterring international terrorism in the future.


Immediately prior to September 11, the administration of US President George W. Bush was operating in a more or less realist framework. Realism, however, is a worldview ill-equipped to deal with the challenges to security in the 21st century, as it greatly underestimates the critical role played by non-state actors. In our globalized world of asymmetrical hazards, we must rethink our priorities to include unconventional rogue networks alongside traditional great power threats. If the 9/11. Commission and its successors are to achieve their objective of providing a comprehensive set of recommendations for reducing the likelihood of disastrous attacks in the future, it is imperative that we grasp the limitations of realism as a guiding worldview. This requires that we are more receptive to liberalism as a guiding paradigm and that we take a more critical view of the teachings of realism.

Realism versus Liberalism

On April 8, 2004, US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice appeared before the 9/11 Commission, an event that was covered in real time by every major network in the United States. In an effort to investigate the failures and oversights of the US government in possibly preventing the September 11 attacks, the Commission demanded that the National Security Advisor testify in public under oath and succeeded in getting this. This was despite the established separation of powers precedent that shields White House staff from having to testify under oath on Capitol Hill.

The push for Rice's appearance was instigated by former US National Security Council (NSC) counterterrorism specialist Richard Clarke. In his 2004 book Against All Enemies, which some commentators read as an indictment of the Bush administration, Clarke questioned the way in which principals in the administration chose to deal with Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network prior to the attacks of September 11.

In his book and in his public testimony before the Commission, Clarke accused the Bush administration of not focusing seriously enough on the threat posed by terrorism. During his highly publicized appearance before the Commission, Clarke went so far as to apologize to the victims of September 11 and their families: "[Y]our government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask--once all the facts are out--for your understanding and for your forgiveness."

Where was the root of the failure? According to Clarke, the failure stemmed from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: "I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue ... [A]lthough I continued to say it was an urgent problem, I don't think it was ever treated that way."

The appearances of Rice and Clarke before the Commission often entailed a subtle trading of barbs, leaving an impression that there just was not enough room in the White House for both of these horn-locking individuals. …

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