Politics & Policy

Motive Distraction

A common defensive tactic commonly misses the point.

During the Clinton scandals, the president’s handlers constantly insisted that his accusers were motivated by a “book deal” or some other allegedly “selfish” motive. Now, Republicans are making similar claims about President Bush’s accusers.

A few months ago, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s utterly forgettable criticisms of the administration were dismissed as sour grapes and part of an effort to sell books. And now President Bush’s counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke has released a book with a series of sensational accusations–or accusations that have been unduly sensationalized–and the White House and its partisans are quick to attack Clarke’s motives.

Now, I must admit, I think Clarke’s motives are questionable, too. But I wish we didn’t have to argue about motives. Questioning motives, rather than arguing fact, should be considered bad form in a democracy.

Unfortunately, the culture war has taken over the debate over foreign policy.

In a nutshell, Clarke’s new book claims that President Bush didn’t follow Clarke’s advice to the letter. And that advice was twofold: First, prior to 9/11, Clarke wanted Bush to concentrate on al Qaeda more than he did and, second, after 9/11, Clarke wanted Bush to continue concentrating on al Qaeda to the exclusion of Iraq.

The first criticism is undoubtedly true, in retrospect. In a similar vein, FDR didn’t concentrate enough on preventing Pearl Harbor; Truman didn’t do enough to stop the expansion of the Soviet Union. Hindsight is always crystal clear.

The second criticism is that Bush was too interested in going after Iraq. That’s hardly a new criticism, which may be why Clarke has arrogantly proclaimed himself a mind reader.

Clarke doesn’t merely claim that in the days after 9/11 Bush wouldn’t automatically take Clarke’s word for it that Iraq wasn’t involved in the attacks. He doesn’t merely report that Bush had the effrontery of asking the Clinton holdover to “look again” at Iraq. No, Clarke has to insinuate that Bush somehow, kind of, sort of, wink-wink, wanted Clarke to frame Iraq.

In a meeting, the details of which the White House disputes, Clarke says the president acted in an “intimidating” way when Clarke objected to the suggestion that anyone other than al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11.

“Now, he never said, ‘make it up,’” Clarke told 60 Minutes, “but the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said, ‘Iraq did this.’”

Now, I do believe that the meeting took place. And I believe that Bush was probably overly dismissive of Clarke’s insistence that al Qaeda was responsible (though Clarke does sound like he was a pain). Maybe that was a mistake on Bush’s part. But, after all, in a relatively short period of time, Bush agreed with Clarke’s recommendation to hit Afghanistan, not Iraq.

I also think it is outrageous and slanderous for Clarke to assume and assert that when the commander-in-chief asks an aide–never mind one he doesn’t know well and who served in the previous administration–to do something that aide thinks is ill-advised, the most plausible interpretation is that the president was trying to falsely pin the blame on another country to start a war. That is a huge, implausible and dangerous leap.

But that’s where we are today. For a whole bunch of reasons–the Florida recount, Howard Dean’s influence on the Democratic party, the failure to find WMDs, etc.–the foreign-policy debate is no longer a debate over facts, it’s a debate over motives.

One side simply believes, as a matter of theology, that Bush couldn’t possibly have had sincere motives for war. It had to be a “lie,” in the words of Ted Kennedy, “made up in Texas.”

The other side, my side, finds such an analysis so irrational, so hateful and so profoundly dangerous to America that it becomes difficult not to wonder if such people hate George Bush more than they fear terrorists or love America.

I think Bush has made some serious mistakes in the war on terror, just as FDR and Churchill probably did in World War II. But Bush’s critics, including Clarke, aren’t offering finely tuned complaints; they’re saying the instrument is not only poorly tuned, it’s stolen, the owner is corrupt and stupid, the music is all wrong and the orchestra is evil.

I think that’s such a batty interpretation of reality, all that’s left to explain that worldview is to question their motives, as distasteful as that might be.

Copyright (c) 2004 Tribune Media Services

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

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