Candidates Must AddressThe Future, Not the Past

The 9/11 hearings and the testimony of Richard Clarke remind me that Republicans have been here before, though it was before my time, and they were on the other side.

For years after Pearl Harbor, the right asked (and answered its own question): Had F.D.R. dropped the ball? Charles Beard, the liberal historian turned isolationist, made it an article of faith. Thomas Dewey accused Roosevelt of unpreparedness in 1944 when Dewey was the last Republican Presidential candidate to run against him. The sober form of the Republican case was that the American military was not up to snuff in December 1941, even though the Second World War had been going on for over two years. The harsher form was that the United States had intelligence of Japan’s intentions on the eve of Pearl Harbor and hadn’t acted on it. The paranoid form was that the White House had deliberately not acted on intelligence, knowing that a successful surprise attack would bring America into the war. (The Republican case against Roosevelt, then, was both bellicose and pacific: He ought to have done more, and he wanted to do too much.)

American flat-footedness in December 1941 didn’t stop with Roosevelt. When news of Pearl Harbor reached Douglas MacArthur, the American commander in the Philippines, he did essentially nothing until the Japanese were at his throat. William Manchester, MacArthur’s admiring biographer, wrote that the general suffered from “input overload” in the first hours of the war. Once the Japanese attacked the Philippines too, MacArthur fought back capably, but by then it was too late.

Roosevelt and MacArthur were not children. Roosevelt had been following the war closely; he considered it both inevitable and desirable that America fight Germany and Japan, in order to rid the world of their regimes. MacArthur had decades of experience in the Western Pacific and was a global, not to say grandiose, thinker. Roosevelt and MacArthur were also master warriors once they hit their stride: The smoking cities of Japan testified to their skill and ruthlessness. Both men knew we lived in a dangerous world. They simply did not expect the danger that found us on Dec. 7, 1941. And why should they have expected it? Only in the fantasy world of omniscience and omnicompetence-the world where leaders know everything and act on all they know, the world of the Republican Party in the 1940’s-could Pearl Harbor have been forestalled.

Now liberals and left-wingers are saying the same thing. The same people who think George W. Bush jumped the gun on Iraq say he should have jumped the gun on Al Qaeda.

Richard Clarke, meanwhile, is selling books. His publisher is the Free Press, which has published six of my books, though their combined sales do not add up to the first printing of Against All Enemies. Early in 1991, I was licking my first Free Press book into shape with my editor, Erwin Glikes, who was simultaneously watching the progress of an academic author who was completing a book on Saddam Hussein-a sleepy property when Erwin had acquired it, but now, all of a sudden, a matter of great urgency. As Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm, Erwin was on the phone urging his author to make all due speed. Saddam surrendered before the manuscript was finished. Erwin brought it out a month or two later, and it sold well, but it had missed its chance to be the observed of all observers. Perhaps the Free Press was able to reissue it last fall. Congratulations to Mr. Clarke for hitting the bull’s eye.

What of Mr. Clarke’s thesis (his 2004 thesis, which is that the Clinton administration had a plan for dishing Al Qaeda that the Bush administration ignored, as opposed to his 2002 thesis, which was that the Bush administration took up the Clinton administration’s anti–Al Qaeda plan from Day 1 and made it stronger)?

Maybe we should have a little rachmones for our Presidents. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush knew that Al Qaeda was a problem before 9/11. Bill Clinton had the evidence of the attacks on Khobar Towers and the U.S.S. Cole , and the bombings of our embassies in East Africa. He shot cruise missiles at Afghanistan and the Sudan, and the C.I.A. established a liaison with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance with a view to destabilizing Al Qaeda’s base, all in good time. If he did not devote more attention to the matter, that was because his second term was consumed by a sexy gambit that became a headache-that is, the Middle East peace process. What President, having the chance to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and join Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho as a Nobel laureate, would not put a rag-headed Koran-quoter, however murderous, on a backish burner?

Then came George W. Bush, with the centurions of the Ford administration and his own father’s White House in tow. They had the as-yet-unnamed “axis of evil” in their sights, and rightly so, as North Korea’s bomb program and Iran’s pursuit of one prove. No doubt they added Al Qaeda to their list, but, like Mr. Clinton, they had other priorities: stem-cell research, compassionate conservatism, figuring out how to keep West Virginia in the Republican column.

Then what happened, happened. We should think of 9/11 in two ways: first as the horror, absurd but malicious, that we must always remember with grief and wrath; second, as one of life’s little surprises. What were we expecting-the end of history? Passion and ignorance are immortal; having no distractions, they are tireless and protean, always able to take us unawares. So we were taken; let slip the dogs of war.

The question before us, now and for the next few Presidential terms, is: How big a war? Should we, can we, stop with Afghanistan? With Afghanistan and Iraq? Are Al Qaeda and its successors, soul mates and sponsors to be checked by pressing the levers of existing institutions and alliances? What if the United Nations has to wean itself from boodle? Suppose France and Saudi Arabia have not yet figured out what side they are on? Suppose Pakistan, having figured it out, is not able to help us effectively? These are the things our candidates should be thinking about, not what we did before 9/11. We know that was wrong.