Commentary Magazine


The Richard Clarke Show

In March of this year, a hitherto unheralded book threatened (or, depending on your point of view, promised) to turn the 2004 presidential election on its head. The author was Richard Clarke, a career government official who had served as chief of counterterrorism under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The book, Against All Enemies,1 accused Bush of having failed the nation grievously on the very issue on which the President's case for a second term would inevitably rest—namely, his response to the threat to the nation's security that manifested itself so terrifyingly in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

The book's release date had been pushed forward to coincide with public hearings held by the government commission appointed to probe the 9/11 catastrophe. Stoked by Clarke's appearance as a witness, which he opened with a dramatic apology to the victims' kin for the government's failure to forestall the attack, Against All Enemies became overnight the publishing event of the season. Predictably, Clarke's agent soon announced that he was fielding bids for movie rights.

Both in the book and in his testimony, as in his numerous television appearances, Clarke charged that Bush, far from being an effective leader in the battle against terrorism, had stubbornly ignored this looming menace during his first eight months in office, even as Clarke, then in the White House himself, struggled in vain to draw the President's attention to it. When 9/11 did galvanize Bush belatedly to action, he proceeded to ruin the job by invading Iraq, pursuing a war on which the President was “hell-bent” for his own parochial reasons but which, Clarke was convinced, would make America less, not more, secure.

The effect of Clarke's words was, everyone agreed, electric. Few political observers differed with the assessment of the Washington correspondents of the Los Angeles Times: “The consensus here is that Clarke's recently published book and his testimony before the September 11 commission have dealt the Bush presidency its most severe blow to date.” The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org announced that it had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to air anti-Bush TV spots based on Clarke's allegations.

In view of the magnitude of Clarke's challenge to the reputation of the Bush team, top administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and especially National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, took a direct hand in rebuttal. This, in turn, evoked cries of indignation from Democrats and media commentators. The New York Times columnist Bob Herbert deplored what he termed a “ferocious and unconscionable campaign of character assassination against Mr. Clarke.” The Washington Post's David Ignatius claimed that the administration had “smeared Clarke personally [and] ignored his substantive criticisms.” His Post colleague, Richard Cohen, wrote that a broadside against Clarke by Senate majority leader Bill Frist reminded him of “Joe McCarthy.” And Tom Daschle, the Senate's minority leader, demanded an end to the “character attacks” on Clarke.

What made Clarke's indictment of Bush particularly devastating, and the controversy over it so heated, was his contention that Bush's performance against terrorism compared very unfavorably with that of his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Since Clarke had served both men, he was presumably well positioned to judge. Even more telling was the fact that, as a career official who had also served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, Clarke had a reputation as something of a “hawk.” If his case were to hold up, then Bush's credit as a wartime leader would be canceled, and with it the Republicans' claim to be the party better trusted to safeguard the nation against its foes.

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It is only because events move so quickly these days that I have thus far been writing in the past tense. Conceivably, Richard Clarke himself will fade from the scene as suddenly as he emerged. But whether he fades or not, the case advanced in Against All Enemies, and echoes of that case, are bound to haunt our political debate for a long time.

Here, then, is the essence of the case. Clarke writes that he briefed the top officials of the incoming Bush administration during its first days. “My message was stark,” he states. “Al Qaeda is at war with us, it is a highly capable organization, probably with sleeper cells in the U.S., and it is clearly planning a major series of attacks against us; we must act decisively and quickly.” But no action ensued. Told that bin Laden had a network of “sleeper cells” around the world, including in the U.S., Condoleezza Rice “looked skeptical.” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz wondered “why we are . . . talking about this one man, bin Laden,” and when Clarke responded by likening bin Laden's verbal threats against the United States to Hitler's threats in Mein Kampf, Wolfowitz (says Clarke) grew testy about comparisons with the Holocaust.

The only result of Clarke's entreaties was that he himself was demoted, and given the much smaller portfolio of countering cyberterrorism. Meanwhile, by late June, both he and CIA director George Tenet “were convinced that a major series of attacks was about to come.” But Tenet expected the venue to be Israel or Saudi Arabia; Clarke alone foresaw that it would come on American soil. Indeed, he gave Rice “a checklist of things to do after an attack, in part to underline my belief that something big was coming and that we needed to go on the offensive.” Finally, on September 4, 2001, eight months after taking office and only a week before the World Trade Center towers would be reduced to rubble, the administration adopted a comprehensive plan to combat terrorists.

If Bush had evaded the terrorism question until too late, his performance after 9/11 was no less blameworthy. Clarke explains:

He had a unique opportunity to unite America, to bring the United States together with allies around the world to fight terrorism and hate, to eliminate al Qaeda, to eliminate our vulnerabilities, to strengthen important nations threatened by radicalism. He did none of these things. He invaded Iraq.

Indeed, says Clarke, on the very morrow of 9/11 Bush delivered to his intelligence and terrorism staff “a very intimidating message which said, ‘Iraq. Give me a memo about Iraq and 9/11.’ It was very clear . . . that he wanted to see that there was a connection.” Dutifully, Clarke assigned a subordinate to reexamine the question of a possible connection between al Qaeda and Iraq; but, just as he had anticipated, “all agencies and departments agreed, there was no cooperation between the two.”

This reality, however, did not make so much as a dent on Bush and his top advisers. The Iraqi threat “was an idée fixe, a rigid belief, received wisdom, a decision already made and one that no fact or event could derail.” As Bob Herbert, drawing on Clarke, would sum it up in the New York Times: “The President wanted war with Iraq, and ultimately he would have his war.”

Bush's obsession not only led to the needless death of hundreds of Americans and thousands of others, it was also a disaster for the goal of stemming terrorism:

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. Nothing else could have so well negated all our other positive acts and so closed Muslim eyes and ears to our subsequent calls for reform in their region. It was as if Osama bin Laden, hidden in some high mountain redoubt, were engaging in long-range mind control of George Bush, chanting “invade Iraq, you must invade Iraq.”

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To grasp the full delinquency of Bush's Neroesque record before 9/11, Clark invites us to contrast it with that of Bill Clinton, his previous boss. Clinton, he writes, “had seen earlier than anyone that terrorism would be the major new threat facing America.” By 1994, “the Clinton team, from the President down, was seized with the issue.” And “by the beginning of 1996 they were preoccupied with it.” In 1998,

Clinton . . . asked [National Security Adviser Samuel] Berger to pull together an overall plan to deal with al Qaeda. “Listen, retaliating for [specific] attacks is all well and good, but we gotta get rid of these guys once and for all,” Clinton said, looking seriously over his half-glasses at Tenet, [Secretary of Defense William] Cohen, and Berger, “You understand what I'm telling you?”

The next year, convening other top officials to discuss bin Laden, Berger told them: “I spoke with the President and he wants you all to know . . . this is it, nothing more important, all assets. We stop this f—er.” This, Clarke cannot help observing wistfully, “was the sort of attention we needed in the summer of 2001” from the Bush crowd, but did not get.

Clarke anticipates a likely objection: how was it that, despite the Clintonites' preoccupation and all those forthright words and gazes, the terrorism problem was still there for the Bush team to bungle in 2001? He has an explanation: Clinton was hamstrung by the right wing. When, for example, he ordered cruise-missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, at a moment coinciding with the peak of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, “it 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.”

An additional but related obstacle, Clarke asserts, was presented by FBI director Louis Freeh. Although Freeh was a Clinton appointee, his “back channels to Republicans in the Congress and to supporters in the media made it impossible for the President to dismiss him without running the risk of making him a martyr of the Republican Right.” Nor was the FBI the only impediment. Because Clinton, determined though he was, had been “weakened by continued political attack,” he “could not get the CIA, the Pentagon, and FBI to act sufficiently to deal with the threat.”

Nevertheless, such were Clinton's instincts and even his actions that, had he been in office after 9/11, he would have performed much better than Bush. He surely would not to have made the unpardonable error of going to war against Iraq. Instead, as Clarke pictures it, Clinton (and probably he says, our other recent Presidents, too, except for Ronald Reagan) would have had a better plan:

[They] might have tried to understand the phenomenon of terrorism, what led fifteen Saudis and four others to commit suicide to kill Americans. [Clinton or the] others might have tried to build a world consensus to address the root causes, while using the moment to force what had been lethargic or doubting governments to arrest known terrorists and close front organizations. One can imagine Clinton trying to force an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, going to Saudi Arabia and addressing the Muslim people in a moving appeal for religious tolerance, pushing hard for a security arrangement between India and Pakistan to create a nuclear-free zone, and stabilizing Pakistan.

In short, when it comes to the challenge of terrorism, the changeover from Clinton to Bush amounted to a national tragedy.

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Before assessing Clarke's analysis, a few words are in order about this book as a book, and what that tells us about Clarke's method and general reliability. Against All Enemies has two heroes. The first is Clinton. The former President comes off as a kind of John Wayne figure. He is tough as nails not only on bin Laden and al Qaeda but also in facing whatever other challenges confronted the United States during his tenure.

Thus, when informed of early signs that Iran was behind the bombing of U.S. military housing in Dahran, Saudi Arabia, “Clinton told us that if it came to using force against Iran, ‘I don't want any pissant half-measures.’ ” Presented with a plan for a cruise-missile strike against Iraqi intelligence headquarters in response to Iraq's 1993 effort to assassinate former President George H. W. Bush, “Clinton was pragmatic. ‘Well, this may teach him a lesson, but if it doesn't, we will have to do more.’ ” And when followers of Muhammad Farah Aideed killed eighteen U.S. army rangers in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, Clinton, although he duly convened the members of his cabinet and let them have their say, “had already decided something. He was done listening.” Masterfully, the President laid down the plan:

Okay, here's what we're gonna do. We are not running away with our tail between our legs. I've already heard from Congress and that's what they all want to do, get out tomorrow. We're staying. . . .

We are going to send in more troops, with tanks and aircraft and anything else they need. We are going to show force. And we are going to keep delivering the food. If anybody f—s with us, we will respond massively.

Yet, like John Wayne, Clinton could also show a caring heart. When, in 1996, TWA 800 exploded in mid-air and the families of its passengers gathered in New York's Kennedy airport, Clinton

called us into the Oval Office. “I want to go up there tomorrow, to see those families.”

That did not seem the best idea I had ever heard. The families were looking to lynch someone. If the president of TWA was unavailable, they might settle for the President of the United States.

I suggested there might be a problem with meeting the families in their current mood. . . .

“Get a French interpreter too. Many of the families are from France,” the President continued as though I had never objected.

Nor are strength and compassion Clinton's only virtues. He had had the wisdom to appoint Attorney General Janet Reno, a woman of “incredible public courage.” And he is a man of depth: “Clinton's reading habits had always amazed me. He was an eclectic reader, who apparently stayed up very late almost every night devouring a book.”

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But if Clarke's portrayal of Clinton leans toward the hagiographic, the book's other hero comes across as, if anything, more admirable still. His name is Richard Clarke.

When important things affecting U.S. security were happening, Clarke, it seems, was nearly ubiquitous. We see him as puppeteer, cleverly manipulating Vice President Al Gore's whip hand to force an inert bureaucracy into safeguarding the Atlanta Olympics; as executive, dispatching teams of experts to see to the protection of U.S. embassies around the world; as diplomat, telling Clinton what to write to the king of Saudi Arabia; as wordsmith, contributing passages to “the most eloquent speech of [George W. Bush's] career.”

There is more. Clarke the moralist single-handedly shames Israel into ceasing weapons deals with South Africa by confronting Israeli official David Ivry with the realization that apartheid “is a sin.” Clarke the master tactician plots the caper that turns up proof of Iraq's nuclear-weapons program. Above all, there is Clarke the consummate doer and shaker, whose influence extends far beyond his portfolio. It is he who recommends General Barry McCaffrey for the post of drug czar, and he who (together with some others) recommends the appointment of General John Shalikashvili as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is even Clarke who enters into “a pact” with Madeleine Albright and a few others, called “Operation Orient Express,” to oust Boutros Boutros-Ghali as Secretary-General of the UN.

Given the breadth of his influence, and his qualities of both insight and foresight, it is little wonder that Clarke is esteemed so highly—as we learn from the things he tells us have been said to and about him by others. When the Clinton administration gave way to the Bush administration, a top outgoing Pentagon official, concerned about the Counterterrorism Security Group that Clarke headed, appealed to incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell: “Keep this interagency team together. . . . [T]his is the best interagency team I have ever seen.” On 9/11 itself, a day when Clarke, in his own telling, took command of the government's response, the President's Special Assistant for Defense Affairs “squeezed my bicep” and said: “Guess I'm working for you today. What can I do?” Shortly thereafter, an FBI official responded to an order from Clarke, adding: “Dick . . . hang in there, we need you.” Hours later, President Bush gave his handlers two commands: “I'm coming back to the White House as soon as the plane is fueled. No discussion. Item two, briefing by Dick Clarke.”

The government could hardly have been in steadier hands on that terrible day: Clarke, we discover in these pages, has nerves of steel. Informed by an aide that Osama bin Laden may have put out “a contract” on his life, Clarke responded with insouciance: “Well, as Mr. Spock said to Captain Kirk, if you die we all move up one in rank.” When the Secret Service tried to blanket him in protection, Clarke would have none of it, procuring instead a .357 Sig Sauer. This gun would reappear in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Late that night, Clarke writes, he went home for a quick shower and change of clothes and then “found my Secret Service-issued .357 sidearm, thrust it in my belt, and went back out into the night, back to the West Wing.”

Finally, and again like Clinton if not more so, Clarke is a man of parts, sophisticated in both taste and intellect. In one scene, he and a buddy drain a bottle of Lagavulin single-malt scotch. In another, he sips a pinot noir that he stocks from a small Russian winery he has discovered. Analyzing the politics of Iran, he invokes the theory of revolution advanced by the historian Crane Brinton (somewhat spoiling the effect by calling him “Britton”).

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In addition to the book's heroes, there are, of course, its villains. Their number includes those Clinton-era government agencies that could not be moved to go after the terrorists, as well as Clinton's political enemies whose “bitterness . . . knew no bounds” and who were willing to endanger the country “for their own political ends.” Above all, however, the villains of Against All Enemies are Bush, Cheney (“a right-wing ideologue” with “strong, almost extreme beliefs”), and their top appointees. These, at an hour when “the nation needed thoughtful leadership to deal with the underlying problems September 11 reflected,” offered nothing but “unthinking reactions, ham-handed responses, and a rejection of analysis in favor of received wisdom.”

Extravagant in lauding his heroes, Clark is even more extravagant in condemning his villains. In the book's preface, he notes portentously the oath of office that is sworn by everyone undertaking to serve in government, focusing especially on its solemn pledge to defend the Constitution “against all enemies.” Such enemies include not only foreigners but others as well—and notably, Clark warns, “those who would use the terrorist threat to assault the liberties the Constitution enshrines. Those liberties are under assault and, if there is another major, successful attack . . . there will be further assaults on our rights and civil liberties.”

The peril referred to here can come from nowhere else than our own government. The very title of Clarke's book, in other words, has been chosen to signify that Bush and his administration are enemies of the Constitution—that they are, in effect, traitors.

The extremity of Clarke's characterizations contributes to lending his treatise the quality of an action-hero comic book. So do the abundant quotations, which often sound as if appearing in a bubble above the characters' heads. Since Clarke acknowledges he is working from memory, he could not possibly recall conversations verbatim, but by intentionally putting them in quotation marks he nevertheless gives them a spurious authenticity. Unfortunately, no matter who is speaking, everyone adopts the same phony-sounding verbal style. Even when Clarke is quoting himself, the words do not manage to ring true.2

Dubious quotations are just the beginning of the book's unreliability. Many individuals whose names appear in its pages book have flatly repudiated Clarke's account of events. The issues go from small to large.

Item: In the September 4, 2001 meeting at which, according to Clarke, the “principals” of the Bush administration finally got down to the problem of al Qaeda, “Rumsfeld, who looked distracted throughout the session, took the Wolfowitz line that there were other terrorist concerns, like Iraq, and that whatever we did on this al-Qaeda business, we had to deal with the other sources of terrorism.” But Rumsfeld has stated, and there are records to confirm, that he did not attend this meeting at all.

Item: According to a report in the New York Times, two officials who were present with Clarke in the White House situation room on 9/11 have contradicted him on numerous details of what happened that day. Clarke's account, one put it, “is a much better screenplay than reality was.” The words are Franklin Miller's, the same colleague who allegedly told Clarke, “I'm working for you today”—words that Miller likewise denies having uttered. Still another official, Clarke's own deputy at the time, has refused to confirm Clarke's version of what Bush said to them on 9/11. “I'm not going to get into that,” he told the Times. “That is Dick's characterization.”

Item: Wolfowitz has testified under oath about Clarke's statement that references to Mein Kampf raised his Jewish hackles. “I can't recall ever saying anything remotely like that [and] don't believe I could have,” Wolfowitz stated, explaining that he himself has often invoked Mein Kampf to illustrate his conviction that we need to take seriously what our enemies say. As for Condoleezza Rice's looking “skeptical” about the threat from bin Laden, even before Bush's election she had spoken of “the terrorist threat to the United States itself. . . . We don't want to wake up one day and find out that Osama bin Laden has been successful on our own territory.” Citing Clarke's claim that he foresaw an attack on American soil, Rice has stated that “he never communicated that to anyone”; nor has he produced a document to show that he did.

Item: During the Reagan administration, Clarke writes, he went to Richard Perle, then the Assistant Secretary of Defense, to urge that the Pentagon stop blocking the transfer of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan mujahideen. Having made his case, he waited in Perle's office while Perle ducked in to see Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger; the problem was solved on the spot. Although the account is half-flattering to him, Perle says that it is sheer fabrication and that no such meeting occurred.

Item: Clarke taxes both Wolfowitz and R. James Woolsey Clinton's Director of Central Intelligence, with being members of a “small cult” enamored of the theory, championed by the Iraq expert Laurie Mylroie, that Saddam Hussein was behind the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 and had a hand in the 9/11 attacks as well. To indicate the degree to which Mylroie is out of touch with reality, Clarke cites her assertion “that the real Ramzi Yousef [one of the 1993 bombers] was not in the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Manhattan, but lounging at the right hand of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.” There is, however, no such assertion in Mylroie's book on the subject; rather, she reports accurately that Yousef, who had initially avoided capture, “was arrested and returned to the United States” in 1995. It may be that Clarke has confused Yousef with another of the 1993 plotters, Abdul Yasin (whose name he bollixes to Yasim in both text and index), who did indeed flee to Iraq where, according to published intelligence accounts, he lived on an Iraqi government stipend.

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It is not only others who have repudiated Clarke. At times he repudiates himself, either by taking contradictory positions on similar questions or by giving contradictory versions of the same event. Thus, he sneers at the softness of a “White House and Pentagon that sought to give the Taliban another chance [to hand over bin Laden] after September 11,” but then invidiously contrasts Bush's attack on Iraq with the wisdom of the elder Bush, who in 1991 sought to “give . . . Iraq every opportunity to avoid a war.” Similarly, although he lacerates Bush for not trying to hit bin Laden before 9/11, and then for not continuing to concentrate on that goal, he applauds Clinton for not hunting Aideed in Somalia, saying that to do so “would have placed the prestige of the United States against the resourcefulness of one man hiding in his own country.” Having patted himself on the back for not leaping to conclusions about the identity of the Oklahoma City bombers, he castigates Bush for instructing his staff to look carefully into the possibility of an Iraqi role in 9/11. And so on.

In television interviews, Clarke has continued to embellish his account of what Bush said to him on 9/11. This is how he presented it on 60 Minutes:

The President dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door and said, “I want you to find whether Iraq did this.” . . . [T]he entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said, “Iraq did this.”

But in his book Clarke has Bush agreeing that al Qaeda did the attack, while pressing his aides to review the evidence to “see if Saddam was involved”—a reasonable question to have asked.

To underscore the supposed absurdity of Bush's supposed fixation, Clarke added on 60 Minutes that “there is no evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda ever.” But CIA chief George Tenet wrote to the Senate in 2002 that the agency knew of “senior-level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade,” and that “Iraq has provided training to al Qaeda members in . . . poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.” Clarke must have known this from his own work on al Qaeda; indeed, years before 9/11, accounts of the links between Iraq and al Qaeda had reached the public from none other than Clarke himself. As he mentions in Against All Enemies, a federal grand jury indicted bin Laden in 1998, and the evidence it received must have come from Clarke or someone working for him. According to that indictment, “al Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the government of Iraq.”

In January 1999, Clarke gave a press interview reported at the time in the Washington Post:

Clarke did provide new information in defense of Clinton's decision to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, in retaliation for bin La-den's role in the [U.S.] embassy bombings [in Africa]. . . .

Clarke said that the U.S. government is “sure” that Iraqi nerve-gas experts actually produced a powdered VX-like substance at the plant that, when mixed with bleach and water, would have become fully active VX nerve gas. Clarke said U.S. intelligence does not know how much of the substance was produced at El Shifa or what happened to it. But he said that intelligence exists linking bin Laden to El Shifa's current and past operators, the Iraqi nerve-gas experts, and the National Islamic Front in Sudan.

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To say that Clarke is strident, self-serving, and careless or worse than careless with facts does not in itself lay his argument to rest. So let us now consider its three main points, the first of which is that the pre-9/11 Bush responded slowly to the issue of terrorism rather than treating it with the urgency it deserved.

That is easy to believe. During the first months of his presidency, as during the election campaign, Bush evinced more interest in domestic issues than foreign.3 Until 9/11, indeed, no U.S. administration had been willing to pay the price to fight terrorism with the vigor such a fight demanded. This was never a matter of the amount of attention paid to the subject. It was a matter of how much to spend, in every sense. Budgetary allocations were the least of it. More important was the question of political capital. How many foreign toes would be stepped on; how many arms twisted? How many other topics would be shoved lower on the diplomatic agenda in order to press for cooperation against terrorism? What concessions would we yield in exchange? And, above all, what military risks would we incur?

Even on Bush's record, however, qualifications must be entered. Clarke himself, as it happens, gave a background briefing to the press in August 2002 at which he said: “[T]he Bush administration decided [in] late January [2001, just as it was taking office] to do two things. One, vigorously pursue the existing policy, including all of the lethal covert-action findings.” By this last phrase Clarke meant the authorization to kill bin Laden.

In other words, whatever Bush's delay in going beyond the Clinton administration, he continued every aspect of its counterterrorism activity. To clarify this point, a reporter at Clarke's briefing asked: “You're saying that the Bush administration did not stop anything that the Clinton administration was doing?” To which Clarke responded, “Correct.”

As for the briefing's second point, Clarke added that the new administration was going “to initiate a process to look at those issues which had been on the table for a couple of years and get them decided.” What he was referring to here were a number of tougher measures that the Clinton administration had failed or declined to undertake. In the spring of 2001, said Clarke, the Bush team “decided in principle . . . to add to the existing Clinton strategy and to increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action.” Then, “over the course of the summer . . . they developed implementation details,” and at the September 4 meeting, the administration formally “authorized] the increase in funding fivefold . . . and then changed the strategy from one of rollback with al Qaeda over the course of five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of al Qaeda.”

At the hearing this past March of the so-called 9/11 commission, former Illinois Governor James Thompson confronted Clarke with the discrepancy between his current assault on Bush and his words at that 2002 briefing. Clarke replied that, at the time, he “was a special assistant to the President, and I made the case I was asked to make.” Thompson persevered: “Are you saying . . . you were asked to make an untrue case to the press and the public, and that you went ahead and did it?” To this Clarke replied: “No, sir. . . . Not an untrue case. I was asked to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done and to minimize the negative aspects.” Thompson then walked Clarke through each of the actions he had credited to the Bush administration in 2002, and Clarke reconfirmed the accuracy of each. What justified his recent diatribes, he now proposed, was that the September 4 meeting of “principals” included only cabinet-level officials, and the policy innovations did not become law until Bush signed them, which did not occur until after September 11.

If this sounds confusing, the reason is that Clarke was throwing up a smokescreen. The facts that he himself touted as a Bush aide and was now reconfirming as a Bush critic are these: in a process that began as soon as the administration took office but did not reach completion until after 9/11, Bush put into place a major intensification of the campaign against terrorism in general and against al Qaeda in particular.

The worst you can say about this is that it took too long. But how much difference did the delay make? Listen to what former Senator Slade Gorton asked Clarke at the same hearing of the 9/11 commission: “Assuming that the recommendations that you made . . . had all been adopted say on January 26, 2001 [when Bush took office], is there the remotest chance that it would have prevented 9/11”? Clarke responded in a single word: “No.”

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The second major point in Clarke's case is that the war in Iraq has undermined the fight against terrorism. For one thing, he writes, it would have been better, after removing the Taliban, to deploy massive forces to Afghanistan in order to “establish a security presence throughout the country” and to hunt down remaining al-Qaeda members and leaders. For another, the Iraq war has inflamed the Arab world, generating more enemies just at the moment when we should have been undertaking “a concerted effort . . . to counter the ideology of al Qaeda and the larger radical Islamic terrorist movement.” He elaborates:

The only way to stop it is to work with leaders of Islamic nations to insure that tolerance of other religions is taught again, that their people believe they have fair opportunities to participate in government and the economy, that the social and cultural conditions that breed hatred are bred out.

Should we be concentrating our armies in Afghanistan? Geographically, that country is half again as large as Iraq, with much forbidding terrain and a tradition of rule by warlord. American occupiers would likely make easier targets there than in Iraq. The hunt for al Qaeda, moreover, might well be fruitless, no matter how many U.S. troops were involved. With America tied down in Afghanistan and demonstrably reluctant (under Clarke's plan) to go elsewhere, the terrorists would quickly find refuge in Lebanon or Syria or Iran or Somalia or Sudan or other outbacks of the Islamic world. We would be left in Afghanistan, a country where the prospects for modernization of every kind are weaker than in Iraq, and the war against terror would reach a dead end.

That the war in Iraq has inflamed the Arab and Muslim world cannot be doubted (though it has also inspired both a new caution and unprecedented talk of reform). But those worlds were inflamed by the war in Afghanistan, and none too friendly to us before that. A Gallup poll of nine predominantly Muslim countries taken in late 2001, more than a year before Iraq, found vastly larger numbers with an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. than a favorable one.4 Comparing the 9/11 attacks and America's attack on Afghanistan, twice as many found the latter “totally unjustifiable.” Moreover, in a reaction of collective denial, majorities of 80 and 90 percent said that Arabs were not the ones responsible for 9/11, even though bin Laden had already issued a videotape claiming credit. What this suggests is that any American use of force against Middle Eastern terrorists would have elicited an angry, defensive reaction. Clarke's own pet project, which he could sell to neither the Clinton nor the Bush administration before 9/11, was to engage in repeated bombing of Afghanistan to eliminate it as an al-Qaeda base. Does he imagine that this would not have “inflamed” Muslims?

The same Gallup poll demonstrated the depth of the psychological problem we face in the Arab world. Clarke's suggestions for meeting this problem—to make “moving appeal[s]” for religious tolerance and to change “cultural conditions” in some unspecified way—are absurd and vacuous. The Bush strategy has been at once much more ambitious and much more realistic: to try to change the underlying political conditions of the region by, in brief, promoting democracy. The first test of this strategy is Iraq; there is no assurance that it will work, but in contrast to Clarke's blather it is the quintessence of seriousness.

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Where Clarke's argument is weakest of all is in its third point—the attempt to portray Clinton as stronger against terrorism than Bush. Strength was hardly the trademark of Clinton's foreign policy. He had begun his presidency by cutting upward of $120 billion from a defense budget already radically reduced by Bush senior at the end of the cold war. Although he had criticized Bush in the 1992 campaign for his inaction on Bosnia, once in office Clinton remained inert on Bosnia during three more years of bloodshed because, as he testily told a pressing journalist, “what I got elected to do was to let America look at our own problems.” He took action only in 1995, when his campaign advisers warned that Bosnia could be a liability in his 1996 reelection campaign.

When the U.S. rangers were killed in Somalia in 1993, Clinton hastened to withdraw our forces. For all the spin Clarke puts on this, he confesses that bin Laden and al Qaeda somehow missed the message he would have wished them to receive: “Even though the U.S. had not ‘cut and run’ . . . they perceived that it had.”

On other issues, Clinton's stance was of a piece. He responded to the challenge of the North Korean nuclear program by negotiating a “framework agreement” that provided aid to Pyongyang even while the North Koreans continued to develop weapons in secret. He backed down, humiliatingly from his own ultimatum to China over human rights. He steadfastly blocked any intervention in Rwanda to interrupt the most clear-cut case of genocide since Hitler. The one instance in which he ordered significant military action was the air campaign against Serbia over Kosovo; although this was crowned with success, its most noteworthy feature in the eyes of much of the world was Clinton's steadfast refusal to employ any ground troops, lest they be shot at.

If Clinton's overall record on foreign policy was far from strong, his record on terrorism was no stronger, notwithstanding Clarke's determined effort to convey a different impression. When Saddam Hussein sent agents to assassinate the senior Bush in 1993, Clinton responded by lobbing a cruise missile at Iraqi intelligence headquarters—but only on a Saturday night, in the hope, explains Clarke, that it would cause no casualties. When the apartment complex housing American troops in Saudi Arabia was bombed in 1996, with much evidence of Iranian involvement, Clinton declined to respond except by some covert action that had no known effect. The attacks on our embassies in Africa in 1998 brought the single cruise-missile strike on an empty bin Laden camp in Afghanistan and on the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that may or may not have been a site of illicit activity. And when the U.S.S. Cole was attacked in the port of Aden, Clinton did nothing because, as Madeleine Albright told the 9/11 commission, we lacked the proof to confirm suspicions that al Qaeda was responsible.

And what kind of message about terrorism was sent to the world when Clinton made Yasir Arafat, that supposedly reformed terrorist, into the one foreign leader hosted more than any other at the White House, or when Secretary of State Warren Christopher paid dozens of visits to the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad in Damascus near the headquarters of numerous terrorist groups?

Clarke's version of history, according to which Clinton was “seized” and “preoccupied” with terrorism but handcuffed by recalcitrant federal agencies, is a fairy tale. If true, it makes Clinton out as a dangerously ineffectual president; it also renders nugatory Clarke's criticisms of Bush, who after all came to office with a much smaller electoral mandate than Clinton's and who had more than his share of political enemies, as the whole Clarke hoopla has served to remind us.

But there is no truth to it. A President who is being frustrated by his bureaucracies can always use the bully pulpit to rally public opinion. But Clinton's state-of-the-union messages to Congress hardly made any reference to terrorism at all, never mentioned al Qaeda or Afghanistan, and cited bin Laden only once, in 1999, after the African embassy bombings that were known to be his work. Even when Clinton did mention terrorism, it was not as a singularly urgent or menacing problem but rather as one item on a long list of transnational threats. As he ticked off that list in 1996: “terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, drug trafficking, ethnic and religious hatred, aggression by rogue states, environmental degradation. If we fail to address these threats today, we will suffer the consequences in all our tomorrows.”

Clinton's annual National Security Strategy papers were little different. They did contain more mentions of terrorism, but only because they were themselves so much longer, each of them the size of a short book. But, year after year, they emphasized that the use of force was only a last resort. Here is the 2000 document: “Our strategy . . . combines enhanced law enforcement and intelligence efforts; vigorous diplomacy and economic sanctions; and, when necessary, military force.”

Clinton, suffice it to say, rarely found it “necessary.”

_____________

Clarke's attempt to gild the lily of Clinton's record on terrorism is a microcosm of the larger lie at the heart of his presentation, as well as of the campaign being waged by the liberal politicians, activists, and commentators who have made of him a cause célèbre. That has to do with the choices the electorate must make later this year.

Most Americans feel that the nation is indeed at war with the terrorists. In wartime, the party of strength is bound to have an electoral advantage. Since the Democrats do not want to run as the party of weakness, Clarke's tale has allowed them to construct some kind of case that they are instead the greater apostles of strength. But they are what they are.

Since George McGovern captured the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, the Democrats have been the peace party. This was true throughout the balance of the cold war, when Democrats constantly urged a more conciliatory approach toward the Soviets and other Communist and radical regimes. And it remained true when, after the cold war ended, Saddam Hussein swallowed Kuwait in 1990 and the large majority of Democrats in Congress voted against going to war to force him to disgorge it. Both during and after the cold war, it has been consistently the Democrats who have favored lower defense budgets and tighter constraints on our intelligence activities.

Only two Democrats since McGovern's rise have captured the White House. Both of them, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, triumphed by asserting they were as tough as or tougher than their GOP adversaries: recall Carter vis-à-vis Gerald Ford on Poland, Clinton vis-à-vis the elder Bush on China and Bosnia. Both, once in office, revealed themselves to be doves or felt they had to act as doves in order to lead their party.

This year, it is harder for the Democrats to strike such a pose. Their candidate, John Kerry, narrowly bested an opponent, Howard Dean, who ran to the Left of him. But this only shows how powerfully Democratic hearts thrill to the call of the dove, for on foreign affairs Kerry himself is one of the most Left-leaning of Senators. He made his first political reputation in the 1970's as leader of the hard-Left group, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. When he entered the Senate in 1984, he championed a “nuclear freeze,” opposed or sought to cut the funding of dozens of weapons, and quickly established himself as one of the Senate's two most strident opponents of Reagan's efforts to resist Communism in Central America. In the 1990's, he opposed both the first Gulf war and the effort to arm Bosnia's Muslims for self-defense. Last year he voted to authorize force in Iraq but then cast one of only twelve votes against authorizing funds for the occupation and reconstruction of that country. He will be the party's most dovish nominee since McGovern.

_____________

No wonder, then, that the Democratic party has welcomed Clarke's tale like manna from heaven. But that tale, as we have seen, is a mixture of mendacity and disingenuousness.

The mendacious part is that Clinton was tougher than Bush on terrorism. To be sure, there is room to fault Bush's lack of haste in seizing this issue. But, on close examination, Clarke's complaint reduces to the assertion that Bush took eight months to approve a plan that Clinton had rejected for two years. Whose, then, is the greater fault?

The simple truth about 9/11 is that everybody is at fault and nobody is at fault. As long as the threat of a massive attack remained an abstraction, we as a society were not ready to pay the price of an all-out fight against terrorism. (Ironically, Clarke and his boosters now chide the Bush administration for pushing missile defense because the threat against which it is designed is likewise an abstraction.) As a democracy, it is in our nature to avoid confrontation: we entered each of the world wars and the cold war only after our enemies left us no choice. So, too, it took 9/11 for us to recognize that the terrorists leave us no choice. Since then, the only question, the question that Clarke and his defenders have tried so valiantly to obscure, has been how hard we will fight back. Whatever criticisms one might level against Bush, he has answered that question resoundingly.

The disingenuous part concerns Iraq. Our war there is fair game for criticism. Just as, in the two world wars, the allies argued with each other over strategy, a hawk in today's war against terrorism might make a respectable case that, instead of taking on Iraq after Afghanistan, we should have toppled the mullahs in Iran or forced Syria out of Lebanon—or even gone after Saudi Arabia. But neither Clarke nor any of his boosters has breathed a word about any such alternative. Instead, they put forward meaningless proposals to encamp our army (till when?) in Afghanistan, make speeches about religious tolerance, and smear Bush with the insinuation that he has already traduced or is fixing to traduce the Constitution of the United States.

And then they do one more thing. Having in effect called the President a traitor, they accuse his defenders of McCarthyism.

_____________


Footnotes

1 The subtitle is “Inside America's War on Terror.” Free Press, 304 pp., $27.00.

2 One way in which Against All Enemies differs from a comic book is in its utter lack of humor, except of the inadvertent kind. Here is the clench-jawed Clarke rhapsodizing about Bush's predecessor in the Oval Office: “Clinton approved every snatch that he was asked to review.”

3 I myself abstained in the 2000 presidential vote because, while I found Al Gore obnoxious, I was put off by Bush's apparent lack of interest in world affairs.

4 See my “Hearts, Minds, and the War Against Terror,” COMMENTARY, May 2002.

_____________


About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.




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