It’s hard to keep in coherent order the various complaints Mr. Richard Clarke, former anti-terrorism adviser, has been trying to make in the lavishly arranged welcome of his book. He got not one but (almost) two segments on 60 Minutes, the second affecting to give both sides of the question whether Mr. Bush was hypocritical and derelict in making policy both before and after September 11, but serving, rather, to fortify the case against Bush because the defense was ill-prepared.
What Clarke is contending is that the heated desire of the administration to get on with a war against Iraq caused it to be indifferent to the case against al-Qaeda. This accusation is mysterious because it leans on the assumption that only al-Qaeda was guilty of terrorism, while Iraq was not: therefore, that an Iraqi-bent strategy brought on disproportionate diplomatic and military activity.
Clarke’s case rests in part on the failure of the United States to mobilize against terror before September 11, resulting in the shock and surprise with which we saw the Twin Towers come down. He cited, on 60 Minutes, the relatively alert Clinton administration, which had reacted to the earlier bombing of a Twin Tower. Clarke spoke specifically of a terrorist bound across the Canadian border bent on sabotage in the Los Angeles airport; the terrorist was detected as suspicious and carted away. The suggestion is that, in 2001, the national alert system was not properly pitched, and that the malefactors of September 11 might, otherwise, have been frustrated.
Everybody should be willing to acknowledge that we didn’t act appropriately on several leads left underdeveloped in 2000 and 2001. There were terrorists who were in the United States, taking flying lessons. And there was the terrorist in Arizona, spotted as suspicious but not pursued for reasons largely bureaucratic.
A dilemma is posed here. Critics of Bush rail against the Patriot Act and the Guantanamo detentions and Homeland Security as impinging on First Amendment freedoms. Meanwhile, other critics are saying that Mr. Bush has not done enough. The two camps have in common only their disapproval of George W. Bush.
It isn’t easy to know exactly what the government might have done if the alert-level had been set higher than it was on September 11. There is a certain innocence in the United States, not unbecoming, about foreign aggression within our boundaries. As one analyst pointed out, the last time we were attacked on our own soil, before 9/11, was when the British burned down the White House in 1812. As a schoolboy during World War II, I spent many midnight hours staring at the sky looking out for Nazi bombers, which never materialized. But now we certainly need to be skeptical about young Arab males who want to come here to learn how to fly. If the objective of Mr. Clarke is to punish Mr. Bush for not being sensitive enough to security matters, let him get it said, but bearing also in mind that Bill Clinton, the predecessor, did not himself act very energetically on homeland security, bequeathing his own arrangements to George W. Bush when, in 2001, Bush came into office.
A second preoccupation of Clarke seems to be the focus we placed on Iraq, instead of al-Qaeda. But we went promptly to war, and successfully, against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the terrorists’ principal provisioner. The argument that, in the spring of 2003, we did not find weapons of mass destruction sitting there for us outside Baghdad has nothing to do with whether the strike against Saddam’s Iraq, as hornet’s nest of terrorism, was strategically justified. We know–the world knows–that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and had used them, in Iran and against the Kurds. The International Institute of Strategic Studies determined on 2002 that Iraq could have nuclear weapons within months if it obtained fissile material from abroad.
The British historian-journalist William Shawcross has a valuable narrative of the hectic events of 2003 in his book Allies: The U.S., Britain, and Europe, and the War in Iraq. He has a keen eye for anomalies. M. Chirac had called Saddam “a personal friend and a great statesman.” Chirac is lucky never to have been a dissident general in Iraq. Bernard Kerik, former chief of the New York City Police Department, commissioned to organize a police department in Iraq, examined Iraqi police records and saw videos recording Saddam’s tortures. These are said to have included “a tape of Saddam himself ’sitting and watching one of his military generals being eaten alive by Dobermans because the general’s loyalty was in question.’”
Why does Clarke insist that our enterprise in Iraq suggests indifference to the greater threat of al-Qaeda? We have had to guard against them both, and in certain matters, al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were indistinguishable. The Saddam-Iraq we have pursued under George W. with a large army is the same Saddam-Iraq we pursued twelve years earlier under George H. W., with an even larger army.