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The prism of 9-11

Can you imagine the United States, before September 11, 2001, putting 50,000 troops in the mountains of Afghanistan and hunting for Osama Bin Laden? Of course not. But it's that non-action that helped determine our course with Saddam Hussein.

By Christopher Walker '85
National security adviser to the Speaker of the House
As told to Rick Waters '95

The night before the 9-11 Commission's Report was released, I got an advance copy around 9:30 p.m. and started reading. If you haven't read it, you should. Every American should because we must together consider how best to protect our homeland in a manner that preserves our personal liberties.

The beginning of the report resembles a spy novel: how 20 hijackers came to the United States, blended into our everyday lives, went unsuspectingly to the places we go and ultimately exploited our society in order to destroy it.

Tragically, we all know what happens in the end.
By morning, I had finished every word except for some of the footnotes, and I readied my boss, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, for a press briefing at 11.

That's part of my job as national security adviser to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Spending the night in my office is a small sacrifice, especially compared to the sacrifices made by men and women of our Armed Forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. In no way do I compare the hectic pace of Capitol Hill to what our soldiers are enduring in harm's way, but I do view my government service as a commitment to my country.

I have long believed that individual participation in government is what makes this country work. Americans have a responsibility to stay involved in their country on some level.

Preceding generations as they came of age faced military service in World War II, Korea or Vietnam, and they answered the call. No such imminent military threat faced our nation when I graduated from TCU in 1986, so I looked to government service.

More than 18 years later, I've served in several national security positions on Capitol Hill, including the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Since 9-11, I am deluged daily with intelligence data from the CIA, FBI and other agencies about terrorist threats and the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Congress is in session, much of my time is spent coordinating the legislative agenda and acting as the Speaker's national security liaison to the White House, State and Defense departments and other executive branch agencies. When Congress is adjourned, I accompany the Speaker and other congressional delegations overseas to gain a firsthand understanding of immediate foreign policy issues. All told, my congressional responsibilities have taken me to more than 100 nations.

Washington has changed since Sept. 11, 2001. We clearly are a nation at war, and since Washington, D.C. was one of the two cities attacked that day, we are acutely aware of the danger.

In September 2002, President Bush notified Speaker Hastert that he planned to seek congressional support to deal with the gathering threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime. A flurry of action on the Hill followed, and the Speaker was to develop a strategy to garner support for a resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam.

Immediately, I began collecting the military and intelligence data the Speaker would need to state the President's case.

In the following weeks, Congress faced one of its most difficult periods in modern time, climaxing with 30 hours of debate, in which more than 300 House members took to the well of the House chamber to argue whether or not to send our nation to war. Partisan disagreement will always exist, but now, in matters of national security and military deployment, congressional voting is based on individuals' beliefs. Unlike other major legislation battles, the vote was not "whipped" by Republican and Democratic leadership. This was clearly a vote of conscience for each elected Representative.

In the end, the House approved the measure 2 to 1, 296-133, and by March 2003, United States forces, with coalition parties from more than a dozen nations, began a march to Baghdad.

For a member of Congress, there can be no more difficult vote than to commit young men and women into harm's way. Yet the United States has been in conflict with Saddam for 13 years, and the situation has only deteriorated. In fact, the overwhelming majority in Congress still believes that Iraq, under Saddam, would have become a greater threat to the world unless action was taken.

The roots of the conflict began more than a decade ago with the end of the Gulf War, when Saddam's forces were expelled from Kuwait, but his corrupt regime was allowed to remain in Baghdad.

During these years, Saddam defied the international community, locked out United Nations weapons inspectors, thwarted at least 16 U.N. Security Council resolutions that mandated Iraq's disarmament, stole from the U.N.'s humanitarian aid programs designed to help the Iraqi people and attacked coalition forces enforcing the U.N. "no-fly" zones over Iraq.

The conflict with Saddam was fundamentally about restoring international order. Saddam and his cronies for a decade cleverly sought to divide the international community. Despite a decade of U.N. resolutions condemning Saddam's regime, he was a given a final opportunity to comply with international mandates. When Saddam refused yet again, he set in motion the international effort to remove his regime from power.

The 2003 Iraqi Freedom conflict was about forcing Saddam and the international community to recognize that these resolutions ought to mean something, or we should stop imposing them. Add to that the fact that Saddam has proven ruthless in using chemical agents against people in his own country.

At some point, given all these failures to honor international commitments and his desire to develop weapons of mass destruction, the United States had to make a decision.

A major discussion point on Capitol Hill now is pre-emption and how our nation pursues it. Pre-emption is a conscience-challenging concept often epitomized by this scenario: Would the United States have invaded Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2001, if we had known the events that fateful day were going to happen?

When you Monday-morning-quarterback it, the answer is that we absolutely should have. Sadly, we did have some foreknowledge. Intelligence information dating back to the mid-1990s describes al Qaeda's sinister plans in the years leading up to 9-11. Al Qaeda's attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and its attack on the USS Cole in Yemen provided significant warning.

But can you imagine, before 9-11, the United States putting thousands of American forces in the mountains of Afghanistan to hunt for Osama bin Laden, a man many in America had not heard of? Of course not.

Even if our government could have offered information to the public about airplanes being used as missiles and crashing into buildings, it would have been difficult for Americans to buy. And had American troops begun to die in Afghanistan searching for bin Laden, our nation would be outraged.

Now, looking back, that action would be prudent. It is part of a paradigm shift that is occurring in our country. And to a large extent, this pre-emption is what has happened with Saddam and Iraq.

Looking through the prism of 9-11 and considering the intelligence the United States and the international community had on hand, could the United States afford to sit back and assume Saddam was not going to act? When it came to weapons of mass destruction, Saddam had a proven track record of both capability and intent: he had developed and used chemical weapons against his citizens and his neighbors. That's where a calculation had to be made, and Congress decided to take action.

* * *

A telling, but unpublicized statistic in the 9-11 Commission Report reveals that the entire gross national product of the 22 Arab League nations is smaller than that of Spain.

That is a staggering fact. It illustrates that the quality of life in the Arab world has stagnated -- or even fallen -- since the 1960s. That is a recipe for trouble for everyone on the planet. We need that population literate. We need to provide opportunities for education, training and jobs.

That is why the future of Iraq is as important as our capture of Saddam.
Iraq, and for that matter, Afghanistan, must serve as models for Arab democracy if the international community -- primarily the United States -- is to achieve long-term stability and economic development in this region of the world.

The governments in the Gulf region-- with the help of the international community -- have a responsibility to provide greater freedoms and economic opportunities for their citizens. America is doing its part, providing more than $20 billion in health, education, and economic development assistance to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. But ultimately, this challenge rests in the hands of the governments and people in the region.

There is so much less hope in their world, which is why the region is a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism. It is not because the population is poor. Islamic fundamentalism takes root because people have no opportunity.

There are three directions Iraq can go. First, it can be a failed state the way Afghanistan was under the Taliban. That is a terrible outcome for the whole world because we know it is a breeding ground for terrorism.

Second, it can reconstitute itself under a strong authoritarian rule, returning Iraq to a nation without civil liberties and which threatens its neighbors, as it did with Saddam.

Or, third, it can be a free and open democratic society that other countries in the region -- Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria -- can look to. Without question, that is the path all the nations of the Middle East must follow because the simmering unrest that exists in those countries is crying out for reform.

These objectives are achievable, but they are long term. And when the press exists in a 24-hour news cycle, the public begins to believe that a bombing today means that democracy will never take hold. Iraq and Afghanistan have a steeper mountain to climb than did Germany and Japan after World War II. They had to rebuild economically, but they had known democracy beforehand. Iraq and Afghanistan have not, and it is a fundamentally new process for them.

What the public must know is that this objective requires patience to work. It is going to take time -- perhaps a generation or more. But we should take heart that, even today, three short years after the tragic events of September 11, sovereign, democratic governments have been established where dictators once gripped power.

Christopher Walker '86 is the national security adviser to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. Contact him at christopher_walker

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