MANKATO, MINN. — Richard Clarke, who served as the national coordinator for counterterrorism in the White House, argues in his new book, “Against All Enemies,” that the Bush administration ignored the threat from Al-Qaida and instead chose to fight “the wrong war” by attacking Iraq.
The troops who could have been used in Afghanistan to capture Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida were instead held back for the planned invasion of Iraq. In contrast to the 150,000 men sent to Iraq, only about 11,500 troops were sent to Afghanistan, a force smaller than the New York City police. The result is that Bin Laden and his followers escaped across the border into Pakistan.
Meanwhile, American troops are being killed in Iraq, our army is stretched to the breaking point, our international credibility is at an all-time low, Muslims are further radicalized to join a jihad against us, and our relations with key allies have been damaged.
The Bush administration has counterattacked furiously, impugning Clarke’s facts, his timing and his motives. Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign, said on national television that Clarke’s charges were “almost malevolent.” The qualifier “almost” is apparently meant to distinguish Clarke from someone genuinely malevolent — Saddam Hussein, perhaps.
Clarke was a colleague of mine for 15 months in the White House, under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Subsequently, I moved to the U.S. State Department as deputy coordinator for counterterrorism, and worked with him and his staff before and after 9/11.
My experience confirms what Clarke relates in his book. The Bush administration did ignore the threat of terrorism. It was focused on tax cuts, building a ballistic missile system, withdrawing from the ABM Treaty and rejecting the Kyoto Protocol.
Administration officials seemed to believe that the terrorist attacks on the United States in East Africa, and on the USS Cole, were due to Clinton’s moral failings. Since they didn’t share those weaknesses, and because President Bush had the blessing of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Justice Antonin Scalia, we would be spared any serious attack. Moral superiority would triumph.
I personally believe that Clarke was one of the most effective government officials I have ever worked with — most effective, but not the most loved. He has been described as a bureaucratic steamroller, and he no doubt ruffled some feathers, but who better to put in charge of counterterrorism? Unfortunately, he suffered the fate of Cassandra: He was able to foresee the future but not convince his leaders of the threat.
Despite its own failings, the Bush administration has conducted a scorched-earth smear campaign against Clarke, because his book threatens Bush’s carefully orchestrated image as a war president.
The president keeps repeating the mantra that America is safer now that Saddam is gone. But no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have been found in Iraq, and Bush now admits that Saddam was not involved in 9/11. The future of a nuclear-armed Pakistan is far more important to our security than was Iraq.
We have also learned from former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that the president spoke of overthrowing Saddam from the day he arrived in office. Clarke reports that on Sept. 12, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was already advocating bombing Iraq, even though Clarke told him that Iraq was not involved in the 9/11 attack.
We also know that some people who became members of the Bush administration had been advocating the overthrow of Saddam since 1996.
The president’s claim that this was a war of necessity was never supported by the facts. But what better to stir up patriotic fervor in the run-up to an election than a war?
Is this too cynical?
Karl Rove, the president’s political adviser, is said to reread Machiavelli the way the devout study their Bibles. It was the Bush-Rove team that deployed the scurrilous push-poll techniques against Sen. John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary. (Sample question: “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” In reality, the brown-skinned child with McCain was his adopted Bangladeshi daughter, but the race-baiting worked and McCain was defeated.)
It was also Rove who in 2002 counseled Republican congressional candidates to “run on the war.” This is a man who recognizes a potent political prop when he sees one. Is this the real reason for the invasion of Iraq? The Bush administration’s other justifications don’t hold water.
The Bush-Cheney ads don’t show the dead or wounded from that war, of course, nor do the cheerleaders on Fox News, despite the nearly 4,000 casualties we have suffered in Iraq to date.
They don’t like to talk about the $160 billion we have spent to run the war either. That works out to $571 for each man, woman and child, or $2,285 for a family of four. And the cost is sure to go higher.
Clarke’s gutsy insider recounting of events related to 9/11 is an important public service. From my perspective, the Bush administration has practiced the most cynical, opportunistic form of politics I witnessed in my 28 years in government: hijacking legitimate American outrage and patriotism over 9/11 to conduct a pre-ordained war against Saddam Hussein.
That invasion was then misleadingly packaged as a war on terrorism and used to sell more tax cuts, the USA Patriot Act, oil drilling in ANWR, exemptions to environmental laws and other controversial programs. Those who have opposed the misguided invasion have been labeled appeasers and unpatriotic for failing to support “the troops” — meaning the president’s policies.
As Clarke has observed, the real war is against Al-Qaida. Instead, the Bush administration has involved us in a breath takingly cynical, unprovoked war against Iraq, under false pretenses, which it now uses to justify the reelection of a president who has violated the public trust.
Tom Maertens, now retired, also served as a Naval officer during the Vietnam era and a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.
© Copyright 2004 Star Tribune