The Politics of Blame by Sulmaan Khan

At first glance, few would seem as well qualified to write about America’s performance in the war against terror than Richard A. Clarke. Clarke served the Clinton Administration as the first National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism; he continued to serve in this capacity under President George W. Bush until resigning in March 2003, one of the few holdovers from the previous Administration. He came to the post with decades of federal service behind him, having begun his career in 1973 as an analyst on nuclear weapons and European security issues in the Defense Department. Along the way, he held the posts of Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs. Harnessed effectively, Clarke’s wealth of experience could have enabled him to give an informative and valuable analysis of the Bush Administration’s national security policy.

Success in the bureaucracy of Washington, however, sometimes demands a predilection for political infighting. And it is this predilection that mars Clarke’s now notorious book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. The book is not a dispassionate history of Bush’s performance, aiming to provide us with answers as to where we should go from here; instead, it is designed as a political bombshell to be dropped in an election year. “I recognize,” declares Clarke in the preface, “there is a great risk in writing a book such as this that many friends and former associates who disagree with me will be offended. The Bush “White House Leadership” in particular have a reputation for taking great offense at criticism by former associates, considering it a violation of loyalty. They are also reportedly adept at revenge, as my friend Joe Wilson discovered and as former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill now knows. Nonetheless, friends should be able to disagree and, for me, loyalty to the citizens of the United States must take precedence over loyalty to any political machine.”

There is more than a touch of self-righteousness to these words. Clarke is out to portray himself as the people’s heroic champion of sound policy, up against the all-powerful White House Leadership. Closely examined, the outright formulation of this position is disturbing. It would have been far more courageous—and far less politically cunning— to simply write the book, and let the Bush Administration’s subsequent actions speak for themselves. But Clarke, as the reader will discover, does not want to miss any opportunity to attack the current Administration (one of the heroes of the book, mentioned in the acknowledgements is Randy Beers, who is advising John Kerry on national security affairs). The resulting tone is by turns bitter, smug, and even peevish, as in this recollection of a moment before September 11: “I requested that I be given that assignment, to the apparent surprise of Condi Rice and Steve Hadley. `Perhaps,’ I suggested, `I have become too close to the terrorism issue. I have worked on it for ten years and to me it seems like a very important issue, but maybe I’m becoming like Captain Ahab with bin Laden as the White Whale. Maybe you need someone less obsessive about it.’ I assume that my message was clear enough: you obviously do not think that terrorism is as important as I do since you are taking months to do anything; so get somebody else to do it who can be happy working at it at your pace.” Federal servants should not attempt to convey messages in the manner of couples going through hard times. Rice and Hadley might well have taken Clarke’s words literally (their version of the episode, however reasonable, will be dismissed of course, as political propaganda), for he did seem to have a point; Clarke’s clear message does not seem all that clear after all. The only clear thing about the book is its tone: the voice is that of a shrewd politician, rather than a dispassionate analyst.

This is a tragic choice, for it obfuscates an understanding of the very real national security concerns at stake here. It is worth noting that a good deal of the National Security Advisor’s time testifying before the 9/11 commission was taken up in answering questions concerned with Clarke’s book. Indeed, Clarke’s own testimony was an incredibly charged affair partly because of the waves created by the recent publication. His two major points—that the Administration did not pay enough attention to Al-Qaeda before September 11 and that the war on Iraq is a diversion from the war on terror—are important ones. Properly presented, with due attention to the nuance involved in the arguments, these points could have laid the platform for the sort of cool, hardnosed debate on foreign policy that the American body politic is in desperate need of. Presented in Richard Clarke style however, in black and white, polemical certainty, they merely exacerbate the problem the American people already face in trying to analyse these issues: the idea that there are simple answers to complex world problems. The problems with intelligence on terrorism and the issue of how the war on Iraq affected the war on terror are certainly worth discussing, but the discussion must be empathetic rather than hostile if it is to prove worthwhile.

The ideal exemplar of historical empathy in writing about problems of intelligence is Roberta Wohlstetter’s classic study of the last surprise attack on American soil, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. Wohlstetter wrote her book with a view to enabling future leaders to understand the problems confronting the decisionmakers responsible for Pearl Harbor; to meet this objective, she took the crucial step of looking at the intelligence picture as it appeared to the decisionmakers at the time, without the knowledge that the attack had taken place. “Looking back years later,” she wrote, “we can see signs that were missed, but unfortunately the problem for those with decision is anticipation, not retrospect. What we want to recreate now is the signal picture as it looked in 1941.” Roosevelt, Stimson, Marshall, and the others on the watch did not know that the Japanese had struck Pearl Harbor till Pearl Harbor was struck; similarly, Bush, Rice, and the other members of the Administration did not know that terrorists would fly planes into the Pentagon and Twin Towers till the attack had been carried out. The intelligence pictures before and after the event look remarkably different. As Wohlstetter pointed out: “Afterward, when we know the actual physical links between the signals and the event, it seems almost impossible that we could have ignored the now-obvious connection. We forget how matters looked at the time the signal appeared in the midst of thousands of competing indications, the signal itself compatible not only with a single catastrophe, but also with many other possible outcomes.” In retrospect, multiple clear intelligence signals assume a precise meaning and point unwaveringly towards the catastrophe we know occurred. Before the event, however, intelligence signals are ambiguous; they could suggest any number of possible conclusions.

For all Clarke’s recital of warnings ignored by the Bush Administration, neither he nor anyone else, to the best of our knowledge, presented the Bush team with an unambiguous, specific picture of the sort needed to prevent the attacks of September 11. Clarke, like the members of the Hart-Rudman commission, claims to have warned the Administration of an impending terrorist attack on Americans on American soil. Ominous as such a warning might seem, it provides little in the way of information that could be used to prevent the attack. It could have referred to a set of bombs going off in the subway, not unlike what was to happen in Madrid in March 2004. It could have referred to a few truck drivers driving straight at the World Trade Center, which had, after all, been the target of a terrorist attack earlier. It could have referred to an airplane hijacking, such as those which India and Israel have experienced. It could have even referred—this was most likely, given the previous pattern of attacks—to an assault on American ships in harbor. And it could have referred—as in hindsight it inevitably does—to what eventually happened: terrorists taking over planes and using them as missiles. The Bush Administration, however, had no way of knowing which of these outcomes the signals in the Al-Qaeda intelligence picture were pointing to—until the attack took place. No one, Clarke least of all, sent in a document saying four planes would fly toward specified targets at a specified time on September 11. Clarke fails to acknowledge as much, conveying the impression that stopping the attacks was a simple matter of heeding the warning signals. Intelligence, unfortunately, is a far more complicated business.

Were there intelligence failures? Certainly. There was a structural failure, as Clarke points out, which caused insufficient sharing of information between the various agencies charged with protecting the nation (though as he focuses on attacking individuals, the reader will not obtain a picture of the bureaucratic infrastructure and where its weaknesses lay). There was a failure to recognize the need to shift the emphasis on intelligence gathering techniques from satellite imagery to human intelligence; the intelligence community lacked people who were fluent in Dari or Arabic and hence capable of wandering across Afghanistan and Syria. There was—and this is the least blameworthy—a failure of imagination: no one ever dreamt that terrorists could come up with such a devastating method of attack, that planes and passengers could be transformed into weapons of mass destruction. These are problems that demand attention. They will not get as much attention as they could, however, while Clarke’s non-empathetic accusations of warnings left unheeded occupy the forefront of American discourse on foreign policy.

What would Clarke have done differently? He would have conducted “a nationwide manhunt, rousting anyone suspected of maybe, possibly, having the slightest connection;” he would also have supported bombing “all of the Al-Qaeda infrastructure.” It sounds so breathtakingly simple—until one realizes how difficult and counterproductive it was to implement such policies even after the terrorist attacks. The resentment aroused by the Bush Administration’s crackdown on civil liberties in the wake of 9/11 would have been dwarfed by the resentment caused by the sort of manhunt Clarke seems to have visualized, especially given the absence of a clear and present danger; only after an attack as devastating as that of September 11 could an Administration have taken measures as drastic as this one has. It is worth noting too, that the argument against bombing “all of the Al-Qaeda infrastructure”—that it would fuel Muslim hatred of terrorists, and thus produce more angry young militants than it could ever kill—has been vindicated by the events in Afghanistan; hard though the US bombed, plenty of Al-Qaeda members, including bin Laden, escaped, and the problem of terrorism remains a grave one. Incidentally, Clarke credits Bill Clinton for his aggressive, heavy bombing policy as far as terrorists were concerned; he fails to realize that Clinton, by dropping a few bombs and then withdrawing, might well have emboldened terrorists to take further action against the US. One final Clarke policy recommendation on dealing with terrorists: seal the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It would indeed be wonderful if this could be achieved, but as anyone familiar with the region knows, it has proven next to impossible, not merely for the US, but for the British before them. The border is highly porous; it can be explored, combed, and searched, but thus far, no one has found a way of “sealing it.” If anything, Clarke’s policy recommendations are even more naïve than his intelligence analysis. But because they sound good— “arrest terrorists, bomb more, seal the border”—and because they come from someone whose voice bears the ring of authority, they will bear credence with citizens who, for want of time, have not had the opportunity to examine the issues closely.

Clarke’s point that the war on Iraq is a diversion from the war on terror is a far more serious one, especially in the light of the trouble Iraq has brought this Administration into. Not that the argument is an original one; even before the war, critics ranging the gamut from Al Gore to Brent Scowcroft, from Kenneth Waltz to Paul Kennedy, had said that it was a fruitless diversion of energy. But Clarke’s simplistic presentation misses the notion now prevalent both amongst academics and amongst policymakers: that the removal of a dictatorship in the Middle East could be the single most crucial step in the war on terror, a step that moves from “swatting flies,” in Bush’s phrase, to actually dealing with terrorism. The argument is deceptively simple. Authoritarian regimes, by producing generations of unrepresented and hence radicalizable young men, contribute to terrorism. Young men in an oppressive regime will find no outlet for their political frustrations; they will therefore be highly susceptible to the call of a demagogue such as bin Laden. Tyrants produce terrorists by denying their people political freedom. And if the Bush Administration could produce a functioning democracy in Iraq, if it could use that foothold to spread democracy across the Middle East, if it could change the root conditions that produce terrorism, it would have gone a long way in winning the war on terror.

This argument, like any other, has its critics (this reviewer is one of them), and as Iraq has shown, it might be a difficult one to act on. But it is an argument with an impressive academic pedigree, and one that any serious attempt to separate the war on Iraq from the war on terror must take it on board and give a measured refutation of it. Clarke’s book has no place for the theory that removing an oppressive dictatorship in the Middle East could have been a crucial step in winning the war on terror. It is difficult to believe that Clarke, with all his years in Washington, would not be aware that this idea was influencing the calculations of the Bush team; we are sadly forced to conclude that Clarke decided to ignore it in order to make his case against the Administration all the more searing.

Foreign affairs are always difficult to grasp; it does not help when those who should be attempting to facilitate our understanding of them choose to indulge in politics rather than scholarship. Clarke’s book, bearing the weight of authority and rife with crude oversimplifications, has done more harm than good to the national debate on foreign policy. Time alone will tell how severe the damage is.