Politics & Policy

Selective Second Guessing

What is Richard Clarke thinking?

The Bush administration is now being harshly criticized for (1) its policies of preemption and unilateralism and for (2) not unilaterally preempting the Taliban and al Qaeda immediately after coming into office in January 2001.

Needless to say, it will be a challenge for the White House to refute both criticisms simultaneously.

Richard Clarke, a long-time terrorism adviser, is leading the attack against the president, claiming that the Bush administration “squandered the opportunity to eliminate al Qaeda.”

What’s curious is that Clarke does not make the same charge regarding the Clinton administration. It was during that administration, you’ll recall, that al Qaeda was founded, that it declared war on America, bombed two of our embassies in Africa, and attacked the USS Cole.

Surely, there were more opportunities to “eliminate al Qaeda” during the eight years that Clarke served President Clinton than there were during the eight months he served President Bush?

No, Clarke does not see it that way.

It is not hard to imagine what President Clinton might have done about al Qaeda in the 1990s. Terrorist training camps in Afghanistan could have been attacked by special forces. The Taliban might have been overthrown in a coup. It would not have been impossible to penetrate al Qaeda.

Our embassies abroad, the CIA, the FBI, and the INS might have worked together to target those whose backgrounds and movements raised suspicions, and either prevented them from entering the U.S. or sent them home. A Department of Homeland Security could have been set up. Something like the Patriot Act–legislation to overturn the wall that long separated intelligence and law-enforcement agencies–might have been enacted.

By contrast, what could President Bush have done between January and September of 2001? By that point, the terrorists had made their plans and were living in the U.S. Even if President Bush had launched a unilateral, preemptive attack against the Taliban and al Qaeda, the 9/11 suicide terrorists might have proceeded to fulfill their missions. Indeed, some would have said that 9/11 was in reprisal for the assaults on al Qaeda and the Taliban.

And who would have supported a preemptive attack in Afghanistan prior to 9/11? Not those who oppose preemption now. Not those who say President Bush was wrong to strike Saddam Hussein before being certain not just of his intentions, but also of his capabilities. Not Jacques Chirac or Vladimir Putin.

Clearly, Clarke did not manage to persuade many State Department officials that terrorism was a grave threat that required a robust response. Michael Ledeen, in his fine book, The War Against the Terror Masters, points to an op-ed that ran in the New York Times on July 10, 2001–almost exactly two months before the 9/11 attack. Written by Larry C. Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism specialist, it reflected the conventional wisdom within America’s foreign-policy elites.

“…If you are drilling for oil in Colombia–or in nations like Ecuador, Nigeria or Indonesia,” Johnson wrote, “you should take appropriate precautions; otherwise Americans have little to fear.”

Johnson actually predicted that terrorism would decline in the decade beginning in 2000 as, he argued, it had in the ’90s because of “the current reluctance of countries like Iraq, Syria, and Libya, which once eagerly backed terrorist groups, to provide safe havens, funding and training.”

Johnson blamed excessive fear of terrorism on “24-hour broadcast news operations too eager to find a dramatic story” and on “pundits who repeat myths while ignoring clear empirical data,” along with politicians who “warn constituents of dire threats and then appropriate money for redundant military installations and new government investigators and agents.”

Johnson also criticized the military and intelligence bureaucracies, saying they were “desperate to find an enemy to justify budget growth.”

This is an astonishing analysis when you consider that Johnson was writing after the first bombing of the World Trade Towers, after the bloody battle depicted in the book, Blackhawk Down–involving Osama bin Laden-trained Somali guerillas–after the attempt by Saddam Hussein to assassinate former President Bush in Kuwait, after the bombing of our troops in Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, after the terrorist attacks on America’s embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and after the attack on the USS Cole, and after Secretary of State Albright included Iraq among the seven countries designated as state sponsors of international terrorism in 2000.

Despite this, Clarke also goes easy on the State Department in his new book, Against All Enemies. This is puzzling and makes one wonder what theories might be offered by Clarke’s friend, Rand Beers, who left the Bush administration to join the Kerry campaign.

Clarke also mentions in his book “my friend Joe Wilson,” the former diplomat who for reasons that remain mysterious was sent to Niger to check out the possibility that Saddam had attempted to purchase uranium–then launched a media blitz accusing President Bush of misleading Americans regarding Iraq, then also signed on with the Kerry campaign. Clarke charges that the administration took “revenge” on Wilson, a charge as yet unproven.

Today, Wednesday, Clarke testifies before the 9/11 commission. Will his testimony be helpful to those seriously attempting to craft an effective policy to defeat terrorism? Or will he be selling books and giving a job interview? You watch and you make the call.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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

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