‘Failures of imagination’

‘Failures of imagination’

: That key phrase of the 9/11 Commission‘s indictment of history keeps rolling around in my head like a bucket of loose nails. Failures of imagination.

What an absurd and hopeless charge it is. I finally realized that what this really says is that the commission could not come up with failures of fact that lead to the attacks. And so, instead, it trumped up this charge against both recent administrations and countless public servants: OK, they say, so it turns out you could not have known what these insane, evil, murdering religous fanatics would do to America but we say you should have imagined it — and then you should have protected us from this imagined act and because you did not stop this act you could have only imagined, you failed.

Not to be too flip about this, but such is the indictment every husband knows from every wife (or pick your familial relationship): You should have guessed what I wanted without my having to tell you. It is the perfect can’t-win vice grip.

And that is the position into which the 9/11 commission puts past — and now future — governments of this country. They set an absolutely unwinnable standard for victory in this war:

It’s not a war against terrorism, says the commission. OK, then what is it? It’s a war against Islamic fanatics, they say; you should go take out those fanatics, they urge. But beware drastic measures such as regime change. And don’t get too uppity and think about installing democracies amid hotbeds of tyranny. You should not invade Iraq and set up a democracy in the heart of the Middle East to set an example. Instead, they suggest, you should work through libraries. (And that is only a slightly unfair summary.) They demand decisiveness but, because they wanted to report to be unamimous, they bleached out all decisiveness from the report’s recommendations. Libraries! They could all get behind libraries. Invasion and regime change? Too controversial.

And then, when that doesn’t work and the next attack comes — the attack the commission vaguely warns will come so they can say we told you so — then they will accuse the administration — any administration — of not acting swiftly enough and strongly enough and with sufficient imagination.

It’s the can’t win conundrum. And it’s not terribly helpful.

Nonetheless, politicians and media commentators are falling over themselves to praise the unanimous report of the commission and urge immediate implementation of all its recommendations, whether decisive (and there are some) or namby-pamby (and there are many). Now I’m all for swift and decisive action against terrorism and Islamic extremism — all for it. But I do feel the need to urge just a moment to ask:

Did the 9/11 commission get it right?

Thank goodness, there are others asking that today. Willliam Safire in The Times frets:

With great fanfare, the 9/11 commission amplified that call for a super-spymaster. This rush to “reform” is stampeding otherwise sensible senators into writing a czarist bill to combine the spying techniques of secret surveillance with the law-enforcement power of the F.B.I., invading the unsuspected citizen’s privacy under the rubric of fighting terrorism.

With this fear-driven new groupthink spurred, booted and in the saddle, nobody at this convention stops to ask: Would John Kerry, if elected, be well served by a fixed-term, “cabinet level official” who does not serve, as other members of the cabinet do, “at the pleasure of the president”? What if, in some crisis about pre-emption, they disagreed – would the unelected official prevail? Who would really be in charge?

And suppose one person had budget authority over intelligence-gathering and evaluation as well as F.B.I. investigations – what would become of the rules of evidence that protect the innocent accused? What the czar wants, the czar gets – and one day he could just as easily be a John Ashcroft as a Lee Hamilton.

One looks in vain for a Democrat here in the Boston lovefest to break out of the groupthink enough to say: “Hold on. In the spirit of the 9/11 bestseller, let’s use our imagination to discern hidden dangers in unrestrained dot-connecting.” Won’t happen; in a time of fear, civil liberty butters no political parsnips.

And in the New York Post, Amir Taheri says this is a bureacratic solution because it is the product of bureaucratic thinking.

The commissioners have a politico-technocratic mindset. They are the products of a political culture that assumes that all problems have technical and bureaucratic solutions. Such solutions are standard: create a new layer of bureaucracy, and spend some more money. But that is certainly not going to put the fear of God in Osama bin Laden and his like.

The commission itself was a typical product of such a way of thinking. So it is not surprising that it came up with only two new proposals: one is to create a Cabinet post dealing with intelligence, a twin for the existing Homeland Security tsar. The other is a suggestion to spend money on improving the lives of disaffected youths in Arab and other Muslim countries. I am not kidding!

He goes on to say that, indeed, the Commission didn’t get it right.

The report assumes that there is a single, readily identifiable enemy. This is the routine way of political thinking, that took shape during the Cold War.

Anyone with knowledge of the Arab countries and the Muslim world in general would know that this is not the case.

The problem with the current War on Terror is that the democracies, and those Muslims who aspire for democracy, are faced with a multi-faceted threat that assumes numerous forms, from the burning of books to the cutting of throats….

The commission makes an even bigger mistake. By speaking of “political grievances” it tries to explain the Islamists within the parameters of classical logic. Having accused the administration of lack of imagination, the commission, is itself unable to imagine a conflict that is not political in the normal sense of the term.

Right. The commission says it’s not just about terrorism. It’s about Islamic extremism. But it’s more than that. It’s about democracy. It’s about modernity. It’s about civilization. But that’s going too far for a unanimous report. So it’s about libraries. Says Taheri:

The aims of the “enemy” in question, however, are not solely political.

He will not be happy even if, in the spirit of liberal generosity, you gave him half of your power and wealth. Nor would he settle for a total American withdrawal from the world. Nor would he be satisfied if you helped wipe Israel off the map.

This enemy’s conflict with the United States, and alongside it other democracies, not to mention those Muslims who also aspire after democracy, is not political but existential.

He wants to rule you because he thinks he is the holder of a “the highest form of truth.”

This enemy wants you, the whole world in fact, to convert to Islam because he believes the advent of Islam abrogated all other religions. Anyone who is not a Muslim is not a full human being.

And fighting that takes, well, imagination.

So, in the end, the real failure of imagination is not (just) past administration’s; the failure of imagination is the commission’s. The commission, in its unanimity, fails to adequately imagine the extent of the enemy and the means and weapons and resolve it will take to fight that enemy.

If we turn around and swiftly adopt this commission’s recommendations and think that we’re then safe, we have all suffered a failure of imagination.