Tuesday, July 26, 2005

# Posted 2:39 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A RESPECTED SCHOLAR DEFENDS REAGAN AND BUSH??? No, this isn't some sort of joke. If you don't believe me, then you should read Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism by UVA scholar Tim Naftali.

Of course, Tim would be appalled to discover that I have boiled down his superb and groudbreaking work into the sort of partisan soundbite that he avoids so judiciously throughout his finely balanced narrative. The real message of Tim's book is how all of us, liberal or conservative (or even Canadian, like Tim), can fight terrorism more effectively by paying attention to the lessons of history.

The first lesson of history is somewhat prosaic: Homeland security measures work best when put into place long before the threat to our homeland becomes imminent. Although this lesson has become tragically self-evident since 9/11, Blind Spot demonstrates both surprisingly and disturbingly that partisan politics and special interests have been standing in the way of homeland security not just for four years, but for forty.

The second lesson of history is that we can take the fight to the terrorists and that we can win. Exhibit A in Naftali's argument about how to go on the offensive against terrorists is the Reagan administration's largely successful to disrupt and destroy the Abu Nidal Organization. The administration's success in its war against Abu Nidal is the reason that Blind Spot says of the Reagan era that " After an initial stumble, the Reagan administration reacted with an energetic and largely successful counterterrorism program." (p. 314)

Naftali's account of the Reagan era is both extremely detailed and extraordinarily well-researched. In fact, the eighty-five pages that Blind Spot devotes to the Reagan administration are more than the book gives over to any other administration by far. (Clinton gets sixty. No one else comes close.)

With Reagan's reputation already on the rise among historians, Naftali's work will prove especially valuable to those who want to demonstrate that the merits of the Reagan administration were thoroughly misunderestimated by critics of the time.

Beyond its merits as a work of scholarship, one of the reasons that Blind Spot will prove so valuable to Reagan's advocates is that no one would even dare suggest that Tim has an agenda. As the author of widely-distributed columns comparing Iraq to Vietnam and demanding that Guantanamo be distmantled, no one would ever mistake Tim for a Reaganaut or neo-con. Tim is not necessarily a liberal, but he is the sort of "realist" who generally considers democracy promotion to be a flight of fancy and the invasion of Iraq to be a distraction from the War on Terror.

Nonetheless, even though I often find myself defending Reagan from those who would underestimate him, I think Tim is being far too kind to the Gipper. Although his administration's success against Abu Nidal is undisputable, there is plenty of evidence in Blind Spot to suggest that Abu Nidal himself destroyed his organization, just as Gorbachev destroyed the Soviet Union.

At the same time, Reagan's failures amounted to far more than an "initial stumble". His retreat from Lebanon was an embarrassment that encouraged Islamic terrorists throughout the Middle East. His punitive strike against Qaddafi made America feel tough but also provoked Libya to kill hundreds of Western civilians in an airliner over Lockerbie. Finally, the stunning hypocrisy of Reagan's effort to trade arms for hostages to Iran demonstrated that sometimes Republicans are the ones with the bleeding hearts that endanger American security.

To Tim's credit, he covers all of these fiascos quite thoroughly in his book. He even suggests that they represented major failures. Thus, some readers may wonder why exactly Blind Spot identifies the American victory over Abu Nidal as the true legacy of the Reagan era.

In contrast, Blind Spot's defense of the George W. Bush administration is more persuasive. On the one hand, the book calls into service the standard explanation that
The Bush team seemed to discount the threat from a terrorist group that didn't have a state sponsor...

Whatever chance there was to put the American system on alert in time to stop [9/11]...was lost in the Bush adminstration's stubborn refusal to understand that the world of 2001 was different from that of 1993. (pp. 316-317)
On the other hand, Blind Spot takes great care to point out that even Richard Clarke was not the prophet in the wilderness that he is often made out to be. As Naftali demonstrates, Clarke had only the faintest inkling that bin Laden was planning a mass casualty strike on American territority. More damningly, Clarke continued to tell Bush during his first months in office that the United States needed a strategy for dealing with bin Laden over the next three to five years.

And what about the infamous Presidential Daily Brief of August 6, 2001 in which Clarke supposedly warned of an imminent attack on the homeland? Naftali describes it as "a curiously weak report" that mostly recycled old information. Naftali writes that "The message misfired badly. President Bush found the item uninformative." (pp. 301-302)

In light of this information, one might even begin to challenge the notion that the Bush administration's emphasis on enemy states rather than transnational organizations such as Al Qaeda does almost nothing to explain its being taken by suprise on 9/11. Just like the Clinton administration, which both Naftali and others credit with being more attuned to transnational threats, the Bush administration discounted the possibility of an attack on American soil and therefore invested minimal effort in coordinating the efforts of the CIA, FBI and other agencies to respond to the threat.
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