March 1, 2004
Richard Clarke, a former counterterrorism official on President Bush’s National Security Council, charges in a book just released that Bush ignored his warning about the threat that al Qaeda posed to the United States before 9-11, took 9-11 as an excuse to invade Iraq, even though there was no evidence to connect Iraq and the 9-11 attacks, and, as a result, has badly handled the war on terrorism. The invasion has created such anger among Muslims that it has created many more terrorists than we have managed to kill or capture since 9-11. Clarke’s charges have featured on all the network news shows, “60 Minutes,” and been covered extensively in the press.
In all respects except one, Clarke’s charges are not new. Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and Benjamin and Simon’s The Age of Sacred Terror tell essentially the same story, as do innumerable articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the news weeklies over the past two years.
So why has Clarke’s book made such a splash? First, Clarke speaks with particular authority. He is the only official who served in the Bush administration directly involved with the war on terrorism to publish his views on this issue. Clarke served four presidents in various national security positions and is a recognized expert on terrorism. Second and more important, Clarke’s account differs from previous accounts in putting the blame on George Bush. Clarke is speaking about the issue that the president has decided to stake his re-election on and, more than anyone else who has written about this, he faults George Bush. If Clarke is right, it would undermine Bush’s claim that he should be given four more years as President.
Is Clarke right?
In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal has impugned Clarke’s competence. The Journal wonders why Clarke did not “connect the dots” prior to 9-11 and come to the conclusion that al Qaeda would use airplanes on a suicide mission to attack the United States. In fact, as early as 1995, during the preparations for the Atlanta Olympics, Clarke insisted that security officials prepare for such an attack. The public record supports the view that Clarke was more than competent.
But is he partisan? Is his attack on Bush politically motivated? It is suspicious that his book appears in the week that he will be testifying to the 9-11 Commission, when he and other former Clinton officials will be in the news. But presumably this was his publisher’s decision to boost sales, rather than Clarke’s. As far as one can tell from the public record, Clarke was not a partisan. But ultimately, the important issue is not Clarke’s motives but whether what he says is true. Is it?
Clarke makes two separate accusations. The first is that the Bush administration ignored al Qaeda and thus did nothing or not enough to prevent 9-11. The second is that the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terrorism since 9-11 is a failure. The first accusation is almost certainly wrong; the second, may be right but it is too early to tell.
The first accusation may appear to have merit. The Bush administration came into office with a national security agenda that did not ignore terrorism but was clearly focused on other issues. Several officials in the Department of Defense had longstanding public positions calling for the removal of Saddam Hussein from office.
Yet, the first accusation is wrong because short of discovering who the bombers were and the details of their plot, there was nothing the Bush administration could have done to stop the 9-11 attacks. The measures that Clarke himself advocated in the Bush administration prior to 9-11 would not have stopped the attack. Clarke wanted to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan but once the plot was launched, it did not need any al Qaeda infrastructure or personnel in Afghanistan for its successful completion. Even if we had killed bin Laden prior to 9-11, the plot most likely would have gone forward. The only way to stop it once it was launched would have been through superior intelligence and police work. But such work is not a matter of policy. Any intelligence or police official would have worked to stop such a plot, regardless of who was President or what the President thought of the threats facing America. The absence of such police and intelligence work cannot be blamed on Bush, therefore. Clarke has said that if Bush had taken the al Qaeda threat more seriously, we might have stopped 9-11. This is possible but highly unlikely.
The measures that Clarke advocated might have stopped the plot but only if they were implemented years before the plot was launched. But years before the plot was launched, Bush was not President. Bill Clinton was.
What of Clarke’s second accusation? Clarke may be right. The invasion of Iraq may be making more terrorists than we can kill or capture and alienating key allies that we need to succeed in the war on terrorism. But the administration has, in effect, gambled that the good effects of democratizing Iraq will ultimately outweigh the disadvantages of the invasion. This is a momentous gamble but not necessarily a misguided one. There is some evidence that the administration may be winning its bet. In Syria and elsewhere in the region, there are some indications that change is beginning to occur because of what is happening in Iraq.
The best that can be said of Clarke’s argument is that one of his accusations is wrong and the other may be right. That is little to cause such media frenzy but enough in an election year.
David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.