Richard Clarke's misfire

Posted: Mar 22, 2004 12:00 AM

It seems one of the least plausible criticisms of a president who's often portrayed as one of the world's greatest warmongers since Caesar Augustus -- that George Bush has been too weak on the War on Terror. But with the release of former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke's new book, "Against All Enemies," Bush critics have, to use a favorite Clarke phrase, "gone to battle stations" to try to make the charge stick.

Clarke's book reads like a typical just-out-of-government memoir, a genre usually premised on the idea that if only the author's advice had been heeded, the world would be better off. Clarke adds a dash of tendentious partisanship in insisting that President Clinton was an anti-terror stalwart even though he rejected Clarke's most important ideas, and that Bush was too soft even though he took Clarke's ideas a step further.

A Clarke complaint about the period prior to 9/11 is that he was ignored when he wanted to get the message to Bush about the danger of al-Qaida. But Bush was getting the message elsewhere. As Clarke admits, CIA Director George Tenet was fully aware of the al-Qaida threat. Unlike Clinton, Bush received a morning briefing in person from the CIA director every day.

The question was what to do about the threat. According to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Clarke suggested a "laundry-list of ideas, many of which had been rejected in the Clinton administration since 1998." The Bush administration implemented a few of these ideas, such as increasing anti-terror activities to Uzbekistan. But Bush wanted more. Clarke himself reports that Bush expressed frustration with "swatting flies," and wanted to eliminate al-Qaida altogether. A long-term strategy to do that was forged and passed on to the president prior to Sept. 11.

This took much further Clarke's proposal for merely hitting al-Qaida training camps, which the Clinton administration wasn't willing to do even after the October 2000 al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole. Clarke writes: "Once again I proposed bombing all of the al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, without tying the operation to getting bin Laden or even for retaliating for the Cole. There was no support for bombing." (Some Clinton partisans have claimed that the Clinton team handed an anti-al-Qaida war plan over to the Bush administration during the transition that was ignored. It is worth noting that this false claim appears nowhere in Clarke's book.)

After 9/11, Clarke complains about a Bush obsession with Iraq. Clarke says that the president said to him, "I want you to find whether Iraq did this." The conspiracy-theorizing about Iraq has thus dwindled down to this: Bush wanted to know whether Iraq was involved in Sept. 11 or not. The alleged obsession with Iraq in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 lasted all of six days, as Bush approved targeting Afghanistan on Sept. 17.

The invasion of Iraq two years later angers Clark most now. On "60 Minutes," he blamed the Madrid train attacks on the U.S. invasion. Has it slipped his mind that al-Qaida attacked U.S. targets throughout the 1990s and carried out Sept. 11 well before the United States toppled Saddam Hussein? These attacks occurred even though Clinton spent eight years trying to force a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Could the Bush administration have done more to prevent 9/11? Absolutely. But prior to that attack, the CIA and the FBI were prevented from cooperating efficiently, and the FBI was hamstrung in a host of ways. The Patriot Act fixed these problems, but that hasn't stopped the same Bush critics who applaud Clarke's new book from smearing the Patriot Act as a new version of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

When they don't argue that Bush is too soft on the War on Terror, the critics argue that he is too tough. In other words, they'll grasp at anything, very much including this weak and unconvincing book.