Bush vs. U.S.

Posted: Apr 01, 2004 12:00 AM
The response given to Richard Clarke's apology for 9/11 is instructive. We assume he was sincere in tendering it, and, manifestly, the family members of the victims who heard him were sincere in their full-throated appreciation. Granting all that, we need to analyze the event for its implications.

One apologizes for one's own misdeeds. One can apologize, also, for the misdeeds of a group of which one is a member. Indeed, for a civilization of which one is a part. But in order to be credible, one has to have standing. The pope can apologize for past episodes of Christian anti-Semitism, but a lonely priest, or parishioner, doing so, brings on attention not to medieval church practices, but rather to himself. The psychological term is delusions of grandeur: a self-exaltation that subordinates the major question. If John Applejack rises, stretches open his hands and apologizes for the sinfulness of time, one's attention turns not to the sinfulness of time, but to John Applejack.

Richard Clarke's apology was not on the scale of sheer presumption, because he had a very direct role in the U.S. counterterrorist effort. But he was not apologizing for his own failure, let's say, to interpret correctly a warning signal that told of an impending strike against the Twin Towers. No such thing was intended. Rather, Mr. Clarke has been apologizing for improper emphases by the Bush administration in response to the al-Qaida threat.

One recalls that on "60 Minutes," where the furor began, Mr. Clarke summoned up the terrorist bound for Los Angeles to bomb the airport, but apprehended by authorities owing, Clarke suggested, to the kind of priority given, in the late '90s, to potential terrorist activity. He was saying that President Bush's failure to assign appropriate priority to al-Qaida was responsible for lapses in counterterrorist activity.

But the historical plot thickens. Former secretary of state George P. Shultz published in The Wall Street Journal on Monday a large extract from a lecture given at the Library of Congress. He traced the events in Iraq that led to war, pausing over the year 1998 when President Clinton was called upon to implement the Iraq Liberation Act. Clinton did not do so, and the surmise was that he could not credibly present himself as a war leader while simultaneously fighting against his own impeachment. An apology here would not seem to be presumptuous.

The motives of Mr. Clarke, then, while concededly sincere, might be taken for a theatrical identification of oneself with the victims of 9/11, and understandably appreciated by those in the chamber whose relatives died. But the impact of that apology is political. By the time it has traveled a hundred yards through the ether, it is taken as an apology for what Bush didn't do, and now declines to do as a matter of pride and political obstinacy. It is understandably offensive to Mr. Bush and Messrs. Powell and Rumsfeld that the impression is given that they were responsible for inattentions that brought on the terrible events of 9/11.

The Bush team is being widely denounced as defensive and self-concerned. But these accusations are a part of the general War Against Bush, which is in high gear. This is the season in which Howard Dean, heir presumptive to the Democratic nomination when he spoke, disdained the proposition that he and George Bush were neighbors, more or less reading Bush out of the community of fellow Americans.

The vitriol is also seen in some of the language of contender John Kerry. If the intention is to hold Bush accountable for every bomb that goes off in Iraq, why not attack him, also, for failing to take steps to prevent the slaughter of Sept. 11?

The drama, as it is shaping up, rests not insubstantially on the charges of Richard Clarke. The political objective is to hold Bush accountable for shortcomings in current history, unemployment, taxation, the outsourcing of jobs, the loss of allies, the undermining of the United Nations and an unwinnable engagement in the Middle East. Clarke's contribution to the comprehensive indictment may seem slight, but his apology is freighted with political drama in this call to arms: the U.S. vs. George Bush.