Share Button

How the Bush White House is losing the War on Terror.

By Dennis Drabelle

Inside America“s War on Terror 

By Richard A. Clarke C’72.
Free Press, 2004, $27.00.

Here is a snapshot of Richard A. Clarke in action. Early in 1993, working on the National Security Council staff, he takes a call from President Clinton’s national security advisor, Tony Lake, who begins firing questions: “Did the Serbs do it? Was it a bomb?” Though he has no idea what Lake is talking about, Clarke doesn’t let on. “We’re checking,” he replies. “Let me get back to you as soon as we have something, soon.” Whereupon Clarke scurries to catch up—on the February 26, 1993, truck-bomb explosion at the World Trade Center that turned out to be a precursor to September 11, 2001. Not getting flummoxed may be what separates the ordinary bureaucrat from the star.

Clarke was very much a star: adviser on security and terrorism to Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, rising as high as an assistant secretaryship at the State Department. With his sharp mind and long experience, he expected to be listened to. Especially while working for the current administration, he felt he was not. Against All Enemies, Clarke“s outspoken take on the American counterterrorism efforts under all three presidents, has solved that problem, launching a thousand op-ed columns and drawing anathemas from Senate majority leader Bill Frist, among others. 

The reader hasn“t finished the third paragraph of the preface before Clarke sets the tone: “Many thought that the Bush administration was doing a good job of fighting terrorism when, actually, the administration had squandered the opportunity to eliminate al Qaeda and instead strengthened our enemies by going off on a completely unnecessary tangent, the invasion of Iraq. A new al Qaeda has emerged and is growing stronger, in part because of our own actions and inactions.” A page later he calls the invasion “the counterproductive Iraq fiasco.” You can almost feel the sense of liberation that must have swept over Clarke after he left the government last year and realized he could now speak out. 

After a thunderous opening in the preface and first chapter (in which Clarke describes 9/11 as experienced within the White House Situation Room), Against All Enemiesbacktracks to become a kind of primer on international terrorism, from the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Clarke is far from a softie. He argues that 72 more hours of combat might have made all the difference in the first invasion of Iraq (the one with Bush père at the helm). Given that amount of time, the invaders might have destroyed the Republican Guard, thus obviating the need to post American troops in Saudi Arabia as protection against an Iraqi military renaissance, and avoiding the buildup of resentment at the sacrilegious presence of “infidels” on sacred soil. “More than anyone [else] in the Clinton administration,” he writes, “I wanted an excuse to eliminate the Saddam Hussein regime.” For that reason, he hoped that the 1993 World Trade Center bombing would be traced to Iraq, so that “we could justify reopening the war with Iraq.” Instead, the evidence pointed toward a little-known group as the common thread to the bombing and several other terrorist operations: Osama bin Laden and his network of Islamic extremists, al Qaeda. And, unlike some people he could—and does—name, Clarke abides by the evidence. 

Over time Clarke formed a frightening picture of al Qaeda’s intentions. By the time they were meddling in Bosnia, he had them pegged as manipulators with a grand scheme: “The ingredients al Qaeda dreamed of for propagating its movement were a Christian government attacking a weaker Muslim region, allowing the new terrorist group to rally jihadists from many countries to come to the aid of the religious brethren. After the success of the jihad, the Muslim region would become a radical Islamic state, a breeding ground for more terrorists, a part of the eventual network of Islamic states that would make up the great new Caliphate, or Muslim empire.” The first part of that formula fitted Serbia vs. Bosnia; it now fits the United States vs. Iraq. 

From this premise flows Clarke’s view that, in invading Iraq last year, George W. Bush played into the hands of his worst enemy: “Nothing America could have done would have provided al Qaeda and its new generation of cloned groups a better recruitment device than our unprovoked invasion of an oil-rich Arab country … It was as if Usama bin Laden [Clarke’s spelling], hidden in some high mountain redoubt, were engaging in long-range mind control of George Bush, chanting ‘invade Iraq, you must invade Iraq.’”

Clarke portrays Bill Clinton as the best of the three presidents with whom he worked closely—for intellect, curiosity, and tirelessness. But Clinton’s ability to fight al Qaeda was hampered by what Clarke calls the president’s lack of “self-control” and the recklessness of his political opponents. Clarke describes himself as “almost incredulous” when he discovered that “the bitterness of Clinton’s enemies knew no bounds, that they intended to hurt not just Clinton but the country by turning the President’s personal problems into a global circus for their own personal ends.” The impeachment process, Clarke charges, nurtured the “Wag the Dog” syndrome (after a movie of the day), in which a president is pilloried for allegedly manufacturing a foreign-policy crisis to deflect attention from his troubles at home. Clinton’s attempt to take out the al Qaeda leadership with cruise missiles, Clark writes, “quickly became grist for the right-wing talk radio mill and part of the Get Clinton campaign. That reaction made it more difficult to get approval for follow-up attacks on al Qaeda.”

Perhaps the most damning charge in Clarke’s indictment of his fellow Republicans is one you have to dig a little to unearth fully. You could call it the Ann Coulter Gag Reflex, after the pundit who likes to brand liberals as traitors. In coming to power, recent Republican administrations have acted on the theory that their Democratic predecessors were not just wrong in their policies but benighted and probably disloyal; this leads to a wholesale starting over from scratch. “In general,” Clarke writes, “the Bush appointees distrusted anything invented by the Clinton administration.” Given that Clark himself had worked for both Democrats and Republicans, he was probably suspect from the start of the second Bush presidency, his warnings about al Qaeda predestined not to be heeded. All of which undercuts the apolitical senior executive service to which Clarke belonged and which is supposed to be the stabilizing ballast of the federal government as administrations come and go. Automatic contempt for everything your predecessors did is no philosophy for governing a democratic country. 

Against All Enemies is a powerful book—and not just for its juicy bits about misguided presidents and failed intelligence. It offers a way of looking at the last two decades of American foreign policy that makes sense of any number of heretofore disparate phenomena. As I write, the book stands at the top of the nonfiction bestseller lists. The last word will go to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (better known as the 9/11 Commission), which plans to report its findings at the end of July. In the meantime, Richard A. Clarke has, in one stroke, framed the debate.

Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 was a political appointee in the U.S. Department of the Interior in the Nixon and Ford administrations. He is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.

Share Button

    Related Posts

    Good Grief
    For My Oldest Friend
    Into the Dark

    Leave a Reply