Rice replied that she had been "blown away" by a "brilliant" speech Kerrey had given in which he suggested the best way to avenge the Cole was to "do something about the threat of Saddam Hussein. That's a strategic view. And we took the strategic view. We didn't take a tactical view." Earlier, Rice had described her problems with Richard Clarke's first al-Qaeda action memo: it was too tactical; it didn't consider the larger picture, the strategic impact on the volatile situation in Pakistan of any U.S. actions against the terrorist bases in Afghanistan. Indeed, the distinction between strategic and tactical thinking, which Rice mentioned repeatedly, is crucial to understanding the Bush Administration's foreign policy and why it has gone so wrong. It's also a good way to understand why the Clinton Administration's foreign policy wasn't such great shakes, either.
Strategic and tactical are wonky words, tossed about with impunity by policy sorts. Strategic thinking is comprehensive, long-term, theoretical; tactical thinking is more limited. Tactics are, at best, the means to the strategy's endthe practical, concrete actions to be taken. The Clinton Administration was, arguably, the least strategic in recent memory. In fact, Bill Clinton offended old-line strategic types by raising economic policy, which was considered a lesser art, to the same status as strategic policy in his meetings with foreign leaders. Clinton did make the strategic decisions to expand NATO and push the Middle East peace process. But almost all his other initiatives were tactical, reactions to crisesin Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans and Iraq. The most notable example, the "fly swatting" that Bush reacted against, was Clinton's decision to launch cruise missiles against a terrorist camp in Afghanistan and a chemical factory in Sudan after al-Qaeda bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
George W. Bush's reaction against Clintonism wasn't just reflexive and political; it was also philosophical. He filled his Administration with strategic thinkers, mostly neoconservatives, who had big ideas about how the world should work. The most important concept was the moral sanctity of American power. The post-cold war world was unipolar; multilateral institutions like the United Nations were feckless constraints on American action. Diplomatic protocols like the Kyoto accord and the Middle East peace process were outdated as well (the protection of Israel was another basic neoconservative assumption). The response to Islamic radicalism would be strategic, as Rice said, not tactical: the Middle East would be rebuilt according to American principles, and Iraq was the key. If Saddam Hussein could be replaced by a democracy (or perhaps just a pro-American government headed by every neocon's favorite Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi), then there would be a "benign domino effect." Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and, ultimately, the Palestinians would be intimidated into moderation. Terrorismwhich was, after all, just a tacticwould evaporate because the states sponsoring it would be transformed.
In all that big thinking, al-Qaeda was an inconvenience at best. Strategy so overwhelmed tactical thinking in the Bush Administration that practicalities of any sortexcept the military details of an Iraq invasionwere bumped down the ladder to deputies. The terrorist threats that were setting George Tenet's and Dick Clarke's hair on fire in early 2001 took a backseat to "brilliant" strategic notions like responding to the Cole by "doing something about" Saddam Hussein. Even the Aug. 6 memo to the President from the CIA, which was titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.," was seen as merely "historical," although it contained the shocking information that the FBI had 70 ongoing full field investigations of al-Qaeda activity in the U.S. and that there were "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings." Without a specific "actionable" threat, any response to the memo would have been "tactical" and possibly misguided because there was no strategic matrix. And so there was none.
The same was true in Iraq: the tactical details of the American occupationthe mind-numbing complexities of keeping the peace, turning on the electricity, negotiating with Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurdswere not nearly so important as the strategic goal. Iraq was to be liberated. The rest would fall into place. Last week Bush's neoconservative strategists seemed in desperate need of a few good tacticiansobsessive bureaucrats like Dick Clarke who live crisis to crisis, who have no bigger thoughts than chasing down bin Laden or getting the lights turned on in Baghdad.