While America Slept: A Survey of Recent Articles. (the Periodical Observer)

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

While America Slept: A Survey of Recent Articles. (the Periodical Observer)


A mid all the uncertainty that followed September 11, one thing seemed predictable: The periodical press would soon be full of retrospectives on the mistakes of perception and policy that left the United States vulnerable to such a disaster. And doubtless there would be political recriminations. Yet that has not happened. The need to maintain a united front, the sense of urgency about future threats, and other imperatives have largely suppressed, at least temporarily, the national appetite for deep inquiries into the past.

One of the more useful analyses of past U.S. policies was written months before the attack. In Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (No. 5, 2001), Martha Crenshaw, a political scientist at Wesleyan University, examines the domestic political currents that have made it difficult for the United States to formulate a coherent antiterrorist strategy. U.S. policy before September 11 lurched forward in response to crises, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, but the sense of urgency was not powerful enough to force the suspension of politics as usual, especially within the executive branch.

"No agency ... wants an issue on the agenda unless it has an efficient and acceptable solution for it," Crenshaw observes. As a result, counterterrorism policy gets chopped into bite-sized problems managed by different bureaucracies: the Department of Health and Human Services deals with bioterrorism, while the Department of Energy worries about nuclear materials.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton moved to create a national coordinator for counter-terrorism policy on the staff of the National Security Council, but in what the New York Times called "a bitter fight," the departments of defense and justice resisted a move they thought would dilute their own power. In the end, a coordinator was named but given little staff and no direct budget authority-and thus little real power.

Bureaucracies also have a tendency to dodge jobs they don't want. The Clinton-era Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for example, avoided taking charge of a domestic preparedness program. Crenshaw writes: "FEMA officials opted out on budgetary grounds, fearing that the program would be inadequately funded, and thus be a drain on already scarce resources, and that the agency would then be criticized for ineffective implementation of the program."

Many other players contribute to the disarray and gridlock, including interest groups and "experts," the news media, and Congress (which often earmarks counter-terrorist money for favored projects). During the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, President Jimmy Carter drastically limited his options by promising the families of those held that he would do nothing that would endanger the lives of the hostages.

In the New Yorker (October 1, 2001), staff writer Joe Klein blames "institutional lassitude and bureaucratic arrogance" for keeping three post-Cold War administrations from dealing adequately with the terrorist threat. Proposals by the Clinton White House to use cyberwarfare techniques "to electronically lock up bank accounts" used by Osama bin Laden and others were shot down by the Treasury Department, which feared that such an effort would undermine faith in the international financial system.

The Clinton administration comes in for especially heavy criticism by Klein's sources. Enamored of the "arcade-game" technology of the Gulf War and frightened by the disastrous attempt to capture Somalian warlord Muhammad Farah Aidid in 1993, the administration was "more concerned with gestures than with details. …

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