TCS Daily

The Speeches of September 10 and September 11

By Nick Schulz - April 2, 2004 12:00 AM

Critics of the Bush administration are all atwitter over the front page Washington Post story on Thursday by Robin Wright pointing out that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to give a speech on September 11, the focus of which "was largely on missile defense, not terrorism from Islamic radicals."

The piling on has begun. New York Senator Charles Schumer weighed in saying "Dr. Rice's speech suggests that at the very least there was a disconnect between the public security message and the policy prescriptions top White House officials were pushing and the private warnings federal agencies were issuing about imminent threats to our homeland." The liberal writer and Bush critic Josh Marshall described the revelation of the Rice speech as a "poetic truth." No doubt the aborted Rice speech will consume the Washington chattering class through the Sunday talk shows.

The Post article points out that Rice's speech "contained no mention of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or Islamic extremist groups," and that, while it mentioned terrorism, it "did so in the context used in other Bush administration speeches in early 2001: as one of the dangers from rogue nations, such as Iraq, that might use weapons of terror, rather than from the cells of extremists now considered the main security threat to the United States."

All in all, that would seem to be pretty damning stuff, if there weren't more to the story. There is, of course, more to the story.

What was the context of Rice's proposed speech? The day before Rice was to give her speech, Sen. Joe Biden, one of the Democratic Party's leading lights on foreign policy issues, gave a major address critical of the Bush administration. The focus of the speech? Missile defense. (You can read the speech here.)

Now, criticizing missile defense is legitimate enough. Indeed, political liberals have loathed it since Ronald Reagan proposed it in the early 1980s. But why should we be surprised if the President's chief national security advisor planned to defend missile defense the day after the chief Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee attacked it?

But there's more. What's most interesting about Biden's September 10 talk is that he mentioned terrorism but made no mention of "al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or Islamic extremist groups" - just like Rice.

So despite the historical whitewash now painted by Bush critics like Richard Clarke, it's far from obvious that stateless Islamic terror was the focal point of Democratic defense policy mavens before September 2001.

Moreover, to the extent that Biden mentioned terrorism, he, too, mentioned it in the context of dangers from rogue states, such as Iraq, that might resort to terror against Americans. Biden even spoke of "Saddam Hussein, the certifiable maniac."

In other words, despite the further whitewash from the critics, Iraq and Saddam were not only on the minds of Bush and his advisors before September 11. They were squarely -- and understandably -- on the minds of members of the senior Democratic leadership.

So where do these further revelations leave us? Over two years after thousands of Americans were murdered by Islamic fanatics, and while Islamic terrorists continue crafting deadly plots around the globe, the Washington political and chattering class is consumed with a now irrelevant fight over who was paying less attention to the gathering threat before 9/11. The important question today - and the debate we should be having but are not - is over the best way to address the terror threat going forward.

Has there ever been a lower point for the Washington political culture?


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