Politics & Policy

Clarke’s Highs and Lows

A journey from prescient to silly.

Before examining Richard Clarke’s recent broadside against the White House, it’s worth noting that he’s not a typical Bush critic.

Not too long ago, Clarke was once a far-sighted, hard-nosed, aggressive counterterrorism official, just the kind of guy you want fighting Osama bin Laden.

Richard Miniter reported in his book Losing bin Laden, and Robert Novak verified, that on Oct. 12, 2000, the day of the devastating terrorist attack on the USS Cole, Clarke was the only member of Clinton’s inner circle urging an attack on al Qaeda. That day, Clinton’s national-security team met and Clarke pushed for a bombing campaign aiming at Osama bin Laden’s complex and the terrorist leader himself. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Attorney General Janet Reno all objected.

“At the cabinet-level meeting, only Dick Clarke wanted retaliation,” Novak reported. “Indeed, he was viewed as a hothead, always demanding bombs away.”

For a real taste of Clarke’s prescience, look at the April 2, 2000, Washington Post profile of the then-terrorism czar. “He has used such incidents as the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York by Islamic radicals in 1993 and the sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995 to argue that the United States should be doing much more to defend itself from the threat of terrorism…. Key to Clarke’s thinking is the idea that a new breed of global terrorist–embodied by ‘bin Laden–has developed the ruthlessness and resources to carry its war to American soil.’”

Clarke’s closing thought: “It’s not enough to be in a cat-and-mouse game, warning about his plots,” Clarke says, referring to bin Laden. “If we keep that up, we will someday fail. We need to seriously think about doing more. Our goal should be to so erode his network of organizations that they no longer pose a serious threat.”

He even foresaw Tom Ridge’s job. At a 1999 terrorism conference in Williamsburg, Va., Clarke told State officials that America’s enemies have found the nation’s Achilles’ heel: “It’s here in the homeland.”

Thankfully, not all of the threats he warned about came to pass. Before 9/11, Clarke’s most prominent public statements were calls for greater cyber-security and warnings of “a digital Pearl Harbor.”

The more one looks at Clarke’s statements during the Clinton years, the more he sounds like Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney today. He announced–repeatedly–that America’s policy included preemptive attacks and making no distinction between terrorists and their host nations.

On March 1, 1999, Clarke told the Associated Press that “If we have an opportunity to disrupt a terrorist cell that could potentially threaten us, we do it… We are no longer going to wait for the attack. We are going to pre-empt, we are going to disrupt, and we have done that a very great deal.”

In February, it was a similar story. Clarke told the AP that “We may not just go in a strike against a terrorist facility; we may choose to retaliate against the facilities of the host country, if that host country is a knowing, cooperative sanctuary.”

But while Clarke was laying out what would eventually become the Bush doctrine, the Clinton administration was, as far as the public record can show, not backing up his words with action. The Taliban consolidated its grip on power. Osama bin Laden’s training camp kept churning out jihadists. The al Qaeda network kept recruiting and establishing new cells.

Why does Clarke save his harshest criticism for George W. Bush, when the Clinton administration’s inaction made his tough promises appear to be empty threats?

Those old quotes raise some interesting questions about the Clarke of today. For example, despite Clarke’s criticism of the Iraq invasion, he once thought the U.S. didn’t need ironclad evidence of weapons of mass destruction to take military action against a threat. From the April 2, 2000 Post profile:

“We should have a very low barrier in terms of acting when there is a threat of weapons of mass destruction being used against American citizens,” says Clarke. “We should not have a barrier of evidence that can be used in a court of law.”

He compares the current threat of global terrorism with the situation faced by Western democracies in the period leading up to World War II, when appeasement carried the day. Imagine what would have happened, he says, had Winston Churchill come to power in Britain five years earlier and “aggressively gone after” Nazi Germany. Hitler would have been stopped, but in all likelihood, Clarke says, Churchill would have gone down in history “as a hawk, as someone who exaggerated the threat, who saber-rattled and did needless things.”

Hawkish? Exaggerated? Hmm. Has that criticism been levied at any president recently?

One would think, based on his earlier comments, the post-9/11 Bush White House would be Clarke’s dream come true, taking all of his rhetoric during the Clinton years and turning it into policy. Instead, Clarke contends his most recent bosses were wildly incompetent.

In his book, Against All Enemies, Clarke describes his first meeting with Condoleezza Rice about al Qaeda: “Her facial expression gave me the impression that she had never heard the term before.”

That, of course, is silly. The Washington Post reported on Oct. 13, 2000, that Rice had a conversation with Sandy Berger about the suicide-bombing attack on the USS Cole. Is one to believe that the words “al-Qaeda” didn’t come up in their conversation, or that Rice had somehow forgotten the name of the terrorist group from a few months before?

Is the public to believe Rice had nothing to do with the Bush administration’s Jan. 20, 2001, letter to Congress extending U.S. opposition to the Taliban? The one that stated, “The Taliban continues to allow territory under its control in Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven and base of operations for Usama bin Laden and the al-Qaida organization who have committed, and threaten to continue to commit, acts of violence against the United States and its nationals. This situation continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.”

In fact, many arguments in Clarke’s book don’t make much sense. He contends Bush’s decision to invade Iraq generated broad anti-American sentiment among Arabs.

“Generated”? What, was the Arab world wildly pro-American before the invasion of Iraq? That must be why the Palestinians celebrated the 9/11 attacks in the streets, Egypt’s Mubarak and the Arab League’s first worry was of U.S. overreaction, and papers in the Middle East demanded changes to American policy mere days after the towers fell. Yeah, everything was fine until March 2003.

Clarke recounts that Bush asked him directly, almost immediately after 9/11, to find whether Iraq was involved in the suicide hijackings.

What a silly question! Saddam Hussein would never sponsor terrorists! Er, except the cash he kept sending to Palestinian suicide bombers, and providing a home for Abu Nidal, and Abu Abbas, and Ansar al-Islam, and the assassination attempt on the President Bush (41). But otherwise, any suspicion on September 12 of a tie between Saddam Hussein and a terrorist attack was madness!

“Nothing America could have done would have provided al-Qaida and its new generation of cloned groups a better recruitment device than our unprovoked invasion of an oil-rich Arab country,” Clarke writes.

Nothing! Well, except for the presence of U.S. soldiers on Saudi soil. And our foreign aid to Israel. And our support of secular leaders like Egypt’s Mubarak. And our warships refueling in Yemeni ports. And the provocative presence of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And… okay, it seems like just about everything America does “provides al-Qaida with a better recruitment device.” It’s almost enough to make one think that al-Qaida and its potential recruits just hate us for who we are, and any old policy decision we make is an excuse to bomb us. But for that to be the case, it would mean Islamist terror groups would threaten France over something as minor as a head scarf law… oh, wait, they have….

Clarke’s comments have brought one of the most liberal Republicans in the House of Representatives to the president’s side. Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, chair of the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, said Monday, “Mr. Clarke is engaging in revisionist history, apparently for personal partisan reasons. The fact is, when he had the authority and responsibility to craft U.S. counterterrorism policies, he consistently failed to articulate a cogent strategy or plan to Congress.”

Shays notes that at a briefing on June 28, 2000, he asked Clarke, then serving as President Clinton’s Special Assistant and National Coordinator, Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism, when an all-source threat assessment and strategy would be completed. His answer: “No assessment has been done, and there is no need for an assessment, I know the threat.”

In a letter sent a week later, Shays accused Clarke of calling a comprehensive strategy to combat terrorism “silly.”

Well, something around here is silly.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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