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On Point

How Much Political Will?


by Austin Bay
March 30, 2004

The world has had a week to chew the sound bites from two days of 9-11 commission public testimony. Media masticators and political grinds have concentrated on "gotcha" allegations, personalities and finger-pointing aimed at the November presidential elections.

Mincing sound bites, however, misses the large, determinative and most fundamental questions, like the one that should be the center of any pre-9/11 counter-terror policy critique: How much "political will" -- and we can parse that as both individual presidential will to act and "public" or national will to act -- does an American president require in order to take action to defeat a threat to the United States?

The human will to act is a fundamental factor. Let's honestly acknowledge the demonstrated will of men who spent five years preparing to smash hijacked airliners into skyscrapers. Their will is enormous -- sociopathic, perhaps -- but large in big letters. Harnessed to a destructive enterprise, their hatred for modernity-- as expressed in Western culture, American power and liberal democracy -- became a powerful propulsive force in world history.

Recognize their will to act and it's clear that to stop their 9/11 plot required defeating the organization supporting them prior to the attack. Extremists who believe they have God's sanction and guaranteed victory are not deter-able.

Our terrorist enemies thought they had answered the question. Osama bin Laden's answer: not near enough. Bin Laden and his clique thought American will to fight with the perseverance necessary to defeat them internationally simply didn't exist. They saw America as couch potato land with a sitcom attention span. Demonstrate the power to destroy icon targets -- the World Trade Center, the Pentagon -- and our will to resist dissolves in, if not a New York minute, an Afghan year. Bin Laden bet we'd either avoid fighting in his Afghan base area, or get quagmired and Vietnamed just like the USSR.

Answering the question of "how much" political will certainly involves judging the degree of threat posed by an opponent. That judgment, while primarily a president's, isn't solely his. The public, to include so-called media experts, shares responsibility. Responsible citizens must know more than sitcom dialog. Weighing pre-9/11 political will asks Americans to judge themselves, to judge personal and collective awareness of the threat, to judge their own responsibilities in providing for collective defense, to judge their own perceived political priorities from spring 1993 to September 2001.

The question has a sticky personal dimension, that of presidential character and the president's own gutty willingness to take decisive action. It involves the "character" of an administration based on its corporate military and diplomatic track record, particularly its ability to sustain public support for previous military actions.

The relationship between the political will of the president and the national will of the American public is dynamic. If a threat is emerging, the president must be the focusing agent of national will. He must use -- in a coordinated, coherent fashion -- the myriad means and methods available to the White House to energize and sustain national will. These include: (1) defining the threat in order to prepare the public for the use of force; (2) guiding military planning; (3) focusing diplomacy and leading in the realm of public diplomacy; (4) ensuring congressional support.

That's because a competent commander in chief knows generating and sustaining national will is vital to success in any conflict, whether diplomatic, economic or military. It is absolutely essential in war. Every grand strategist from Sun Tzu to von Clausewitz understands war is a clash of human wills. When a threat is vague, or poorly understood, or apparently less than imminent, this generating and sustaining will takes time and sustained personal presidential effort.

So why wasn't this done? How Democrats or Republicans judge Bill Clinton's aptitude for decisive action is irrelevant. Al Qaeda judged it as "very low."

However, America's biggest error was its strategic approach to Al Qaeda. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations made the mistake of treating Al Qaeda's threat as a law enforcement issue. Fighting terror was judged, at the top, to be a dangerous form of cops and robbers, not a nuanced, intricate war. The American goal was arrest, not defeat.

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