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Kerry, Clinton, Paul remind Americans why 9/11 remains dominant political theme

The attack of Sept. 11, 2001, has been so pervasive a theme in American politics in the years since that at times we scarcely notice its influence even though it explains so much of what came after that day.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) questions Senator John Kerry (Not Pictured) during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on Kerry's nomination to be secretary of state, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 24, 2013.

Sometimes almost forgotten, 9/11 is an experience some Americans may recall only when they travel and must undergo screening from a select few of the army of 45,000 screeners that was created by the actions of 19 suicidal hijackers.

So it was remarkable that three times in the space of two Senate hearings on Wednesday and Thursday, the 9/11 attack percolated through the discussion.

Testifying Thursday morning at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be secretary of state, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., voiced his regret that one effect of that fateful day has been to make people abroad see American policy simply in terms of killing individual al Qaida leaders and pre-empting terrorist threats.

America’s foreign policy must not be “defined by drones and deployments alone,” Kerry warned. “We cannot allow the extraordinary good we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely by the (counterterrorism) role we have had to play since September 11th, a role that was thrust upon us.”

A day before, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her testimony about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, used the 2001 attack to make the case for continued robust American involvement in North Africa.

She warned of the risks of a 9/11-style attack from the group Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

“People say to me all the time, well, AQIM hasn't attacked the United States. Well, before 9/11, 2001, we hadn't been attacked on our homeland since, I guess, the War of 1812 and Pearl Harbor. So you can't say, well, because they haven't done something they're not going to do it,” she said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tells the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Mali's "progress on democracy" was disrupted by the Kaddafi-supported militant and al-Qaeda loyalists, warning that we must not let the region become a haven for terrorists.

But a bit later Clinton came under assault from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who used 9/11 as his rhetorical theme.

“Ultimately with your leaving (the State Department), you accept the culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11, and I really mean that,” Paul told Clinton. Democrats on the committee recoiled in anger at what they saw as a cheap exploitation of 9/11.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told Clinton, “I think if some people on this committee want to call the tragedy in Benghazi the worst since 9/11, it misunderstands the nature of 4,000 Americans-plus lost over 10 years of war in Iraq, fought under false pretenses. It was fought under false pretenses, but it was also fought, I think, because we had a misunderstanding of what we could do and what we could manage in that region for what was under our control.”

Murphy, first elected to the House in 2006 as part of the voter backlash against the Iraq war, didn’t mention that Clinton herself, serving in the Senate in 2002, voted for the congressional resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to invade Iraq.

Her vote was one liability during her bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination – a liability which Barack Obama, a state senator when Congress voted on the Iraq invasion, didn’t have.

The 9/11 attack created the political environment which made possible, and perhaps even inevitable, the congressional vote authorizing Bush to use military force against Iraq.

In his Oct. 7, 2002, speech making the case for using force, Bush repeatedly invoked 9/11. To those American who wondered “why do we need to confront it (the threat of Saddam Hussein) now?” Bush said, “There’s a reason. We have experienced the horror of Sept. 11. We have seen that those who hate America are willing to crash airplanes into buildings full of innocent people.” And America’s enemies would be eager “to use a biological or chemical, or a nuclear weapon.”

Four days later, the Senate voted for the Iraq war authorization, with Kerry, Clinton and then-Sen. Joe Biden among the 77 voting for it.

Just as Murphy had argued at Wednesday’s Senate hearing that Iraq was “fought under false pretenses,” so, too, Democrats back in 2004 argued that Kerry, Clinton, Biden, then-Sen. Chuck Hagel and the other members of Congress who’d voted for the Iraq war resolution had been deceived.

But some antiwar Democrats argued that – deception or not – their party could never beat Bush in 2004 with a candidate who was compromised by having voted for the Iraq war resolution.

It’s impossible to know the answer to that question – would Howard Dean or Sen. Bob Graham (who voted “no” on the Iraq war resolution) have defeated Bush in 2004?

We do know that Bush held his party’s 2004 convention in New York City, a target of the 9/11 attack and defeated Kerry in the election.

His second term was an unhappy one for many reasons, but it was Bush – not Kerry – who got to the fill the next two vacancies on the Supreme Court.

And 9/11’s effect is also still directly felt in the current wrestling over fiscal policy. As Obama and congressional leaders try to figure out how to pay for ever-growing entitlement programs and reduce budget deficits, Republicans in Congress, but many Democrats, too, are reluctant to significantly reduce a $630 billion Defense Department budget that grew massively in the years after Sept. 11, 2001.