Bush's leadership entails telling what we're up against

Wednesday, September 19, 2001 at 1:00am

Lucky though he was, Bill Clinton never had his shot at greatness. He could lower the jobless rate, balance the budget and console us after Oklahoma City. But he never got the opportunity George W. Bush was given last Tuesday: the historic chance to lead.

Bush's first challenge is to size up the enemy for us. Most importantly, we need to know that we face an adversary that is ruthless in using our distinctive strengths against us.

Think of the hijackers: They volunteered for a mission that required them to kill American female flight attendants by their own hands and to fly planes loaded with screaming, pleading passengers to their certain deaths - and to plunge into death themselves.

At each step, they exploited Americans and American assets to destroy American assets and Americans:

1. Freedom. Anyone can cross the border from Canada into the United States. Anybody can board an American airplane. All you need is a phony driver's license - the kind kids get off the Internet to buy booze.

2. Courage. The hijackers were said to have lured our pilots out of their cockpits by killing one female flight attendant after another. They exploited a pilot's gutsy concern for his crew to gain control of his plane.

3. Technology. The plotters knew how to fly our big commercial jets, even when loaded down with fuel. They knew the flight maps to Manhattan and the Pentagon. From a previous bombing, they knew the structural weaknesses of the World Trade Towers. They combined this knowledge with the cold ease of a chemist mixing medicines.

If Bush is smart, he will let the American people know exactly what we're dealing with here: a smart, state-of-the-art, ruthless enemy whose route to eternal glory is over our dead bodies. We have been this way before:

1986: A bomb detonates in a West Berlin nightclub, killing two American servicemen. Ten days later, U.S. planes attack the camp of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. Fifteen years later, three Germans, a Palestinian and a Libyan are on trial in Berlin for staging the nightclub bombing.

1988: Pan Am Flight 103 explodes over Scotland. One man gets life imprisonment in a Dutch court. His co-defendant is acquitted.

1993: When the World Trade Center is bombed, an FBI probe leads to the arrest and conviction of six Islamic extremists loyal to Egyptian Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman.

1998: After Osama bin Laden bombs our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton bombs a factory in Sudan and a camp in Afghanistan. Later, four men are found guilty of the African bombings. Thirteen others remain at large.

2000: When a suicide bomber strikes the USS Cole, Clinton makes defiant remarks. Eight people are arrested in Yemen.

What does President Bush do this time?

He said in his TV address that we must bring the hijackers "to justice." Does that mean a long, painstaking probe that takes the matter to some distant courtroom? Bush also said he will target those who "harbor" the hijackers as well as the plotters themselves. Does that mean a wider attack on a country such as Afghanistan, the current home of bin Laden?

One danger is that, like the pilots on those doomed airliners, President Bush will do what the hijackers expect him to. He will launch a retaliatory raid against some defenseless people, thereby creating blood enemies of the United States. This is a step that even Israel, despite every provocation, has been wise to avoid.

Another danger is that President Bush will appear to lack the fire for this task. But the goal here is not to get mad, but to get even. That said, getting mad is not a bad place to start.

Chris Matthews is a nationally syndicated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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