In recent weeks, both President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have warned against making the same mistake Nazi appeasers made during the 1930s by not taking the words of our enemies seriously. While it is certainly tempting to compare the attitudes of Nazi appeasers to those held by today’s Left, there is, unfortunately, a much more recent, and more relevant, example of the danger of underestimating evil.
It doesn’t take a fictionalized TV docudrama to know that during the 1990s, Americans didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the threat posed by Islamic extremists, even as they carried out attacks with increasing boldness.
In a well-known fatwa issued on Feb. 23, 1998, Osama bin Laden declared that: “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…” A few months later, he told ABC’s John Miller that: “We do not have to differentiate between military or civilian. As far as we are concerned, they are all targets…”
After the interview aired, Sandy Berger, the national security advisor, said that the Clinton administration was taking every necessary precaution in response to bin Laden’s threats.
But those precautions weren’t enough. That August — more than three years before 9/11 — bin Laden backed up his words when the simultaneous bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed over 300 people and injured thousands more.
Two weeks later, when President Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes against a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, he told the American people that this would not be the end of the struggle against terrorism. “We must be prepared to do all that we can for as long as we must,” he said. He declared that, “there are no expendable American targets” and vowed that, “there will be no sanctuary for terrorists…”
But despite Clinton’s tough talk, that was, in fact, the end of his struggle against terrorism as far as military action was concerned. An astute observer would have gotten a better sense of things to come by listening to Ambassador Bill Richardson justify America’s actions to the UN that day. Richardson defended the attacks by saying they were designed to “comply with international law, including the rules of necessity and proportionality.” He went on to say that, “It is the sincere hope of the United States government that these limited actions will deter and prevent the repetition of unlawful terrorist attacks against the United States and other countries.”
Unfortunately, taking “limited actions” and “hoping” was not an effective policy for deterring terrorist attacks, as America found out all too well on Oct. 12, 2000, when the attack on the U.S.S. Cole killed 17 sailors and wounded 40 more. Clinton, on his way out of office and focused on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, did not respond militarily (he told the 9/11 Commission that there was inadequate evidence pointing to al Qaeda at the time).
The point is not that President Clinton completely ignored the threat of terrorism. More accurately, Clinton confronted it in much the same manner that today’s liberals urge President Bush to approach it. The Clinton administration didn’t “overreact,” it made sure Americans were not too fearful of terrorism, it was conscious of “international law,” it limited itself to low-scale military operations and was also actively involved in mediating a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Today’s liberals want us to withdraw from Iraq out of a belief that the war is un-winnable and counterproductive. But that is precisely the same attitude that prompted the Clinton administration to withdraw from Somalia, an event of which bin Laden said, “our boys were shocked by the low morale of the American soldier and they realized that the American soldier was just a paper tiger.”
In the coming months and years, as we debate how to respond to the threat posed by Iran, the best parallel may not be that of Hitler in 1938, but of bin Laden in 1998. Responding to the Hitler parallel recently, Fareed Zakaria argued that Iran’s current economic and military might pales in comparison to what Germany’s was by World War II. But Hitler fought us conventionally. With the help of fewer than two-dozen men armed with box-cutters, Bin Laden was able to accomplish what Hitler never did — bring the war to America. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shares the same apocalyptic worldview as bin Laden, has made similar statements about the destruction of the United States and Israel, and has the same willingness to employ asymmetrical warfare, reportedly controlling an army of 40,000 trained suicide bombers. Bin Laden was able to accomplish the Sept. 11 attacks operating out of a cave, what could Ahmadinejad accomplish as president of a country that possesses nuclear weapons?
Before that fateful day five years ago, it was arguably understandable for people to have underestimated the threat posed by radical Islam (President Bush certainly did). But after Sept. 11, it is simply inconceivable that anybody would want to return to the way things were done before. Comparing Nazi appeasers to today’s liberals is unfair to the appeasers of the 1930s, because at least they spoke out of ignorance about how dangerous Hitler was— they weren’t still arguing for appeasement in 1943.
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