The release of a new book by Richard Clarke, counterterrorism chief at the end of Bill Clinton's administration and the beginning of George W. Bush's, accompanied by an interview with him on 60 Minutes, threatens to alert the mainstream media to a story that should have been clear for some time now: the Bush administration's terrible record on counterterrorism. As CBS reported, as soon as the new administration was in place, Clarke sought a cabinet-level meeting on al-Qaeda. Bush's response was unenthusiastic:
Clarke finally got his meeting about al-Qaeda in April, three months after his urgent request. But it wasn't with the president or cabinet. It was with the second in command in each relevant department.
For the Pentagon, it was Paul Wolfowitz.
Clarke relates, "I began saying, 'We have to deal with [Osama] bin Laden; we have to deal with al-Qaeda.' Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, said, 'No, no, no. We don't have to deal with al-Qaeda. Why are we talking about that little guy? We have to talk about Iraqi terrorism against the United States.'"
The right's reaction so far has been dismissive. Speaking on ABC's This Week, George Will characterized Clarke's revelations as "a seriously angry book by a seriously angry man," a reaction reminiscent of the theory that Paul O'Neill's exposure of the administration's deeply flawed domestic policies is "sour grapes." The official White House line, aside from dark warnings that Clarke is now fair game for personal attacks, is that this business about meetings isn't important. Spokesman Scott McCormack told The New York Times's Philip Shenon that "we actively pursued the Clinton administration's policies on al-Qaeda until we could get into place a more comprehensive policy," seemingly conceding that Clinton had an appropriate strategy. Last week National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice took a slightly different line, telling CNN that Clinton's policies are "what led to September 11."
Differences aside, it's possible to detect a coherent story here: Bush inherited a set of policies that he knew to be inadequate, and he wanted to do more; unfortunately, there wasn't time to put a "more comprehensive policy" into place, and the country paid the price. It's a coherent story, but it's one that's contradicted by the facts.
The Bush's administration's disagreements with its predecessor, after all, were not some kind of closely held secret. On the contrary, since Bush ran in 2000 against Clinton's vice president, these disagreements were discussed, at length, throughout the campaign. The two candidates focused mostly on domestic issues, but foreign policy was not ignored entirely. Indeed, Foreign Affairs magazine went so far as to ask Rice to compose an article explaining her candidate's differences with the Democrats and how he would do better. Rice's critique was clear: The Clinton policy was disorganized. "Every issue has been taken on its own terms," she wrote, while a better approach would see that "it takes courage to set priorities because doing so is an admission that foreign policy cannot be all things to all people."
Rice proposed eliminating Clinton's confusion with the following priorities: First, ending the overstretch of the American military; second, promoting free trade, particularly with Latin America; third, encouraging Europe to develop a more robust military capacity within the NATO context; fourth, improving relations with Russia and China; and fifth, dealing "decisively" with rogue states.
Al-Qaeda was not on the list, nor did the organization appear anywhere in Rice's 6,900-word discussion of the threats facing the United States. Terrorism was discussed, only briefly, as problematic because rogue states -- specifically Iran, presumably working through Hezbollah -- might seek to use it as an instrument of policy. Because the main thesis of the article was the need to bring about a more disciplined approach, it seems safe to conclude that Rice favored not continuing the Clinton administration's al-Qaeda policies but rather abandoning them in favor of doing, well, nothing -- so as to leave more time to pursue other priorities. After the election, outgoing National Security Adviser Sandy Berger agreed that more focus was needed and told his successor that she should make al-Qaeda her top priority. As Clarke tells us, she did not.
But we don't need to take his word for it. Shortly after taking office as secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld penned a memo (helpfully obtained by Ron Suskind) outlining his vision for U.S. national security. Again, al-Qaeda and terrorism simply do not figure into the analysis. Rather, terrorism -- or, as Rumsfeld put it, "asymmetric capabilities" -- is worrying because it might be used by hostile states to frustrate America's ability to project power.
The wrongheadedness of this approach is important not because it supposedly "proves" that the Bush administration was responsible for 9-11 -- as poorly as it reflects upon it, the perpetrators are the guilty parties -- but because it continued after that fateful day. Viewing terrorism through the lens of state sponsorship led the administration to worry primarily that Saddam Hussein, who certainly was hostile to the United States, might use al-Qaeda to further his designs. An appropriate assessment of the threat would have seen the primary problem not to be state sponsorship -- for the group needs to sponsor to launch its deadly attacks -- but rather the existence of failed states, zones of anarchy in which terrorist groups can gain a foothold. The obvious implication of this would have been a robust effort to stabilize Afghanistan, a goal that still has not been achieved because the effort was lacking. Instead, the administration invaded Iraq, thereby creating a new failed state where terrorists are currently operating.
Iraq really has become, as the president says, a "central front" in the war on terrorism, but this is entirely a consequence of his own mistakes. Stabilizing Iraq, moreover, will only return us to the baseline, not make us any safer from al-Qaeda than we were before. So far, the administration seems unequal to the task, ready to lose allies like Spain over a stubborn unwillingness to cede authority to the United Nations rather than gain the additional international support we require. Moreover, even if it does manage to turn the situation around, there is no indication that the current team has any idea of how to move forward. Its first instinct -- to deny that terrorism is a serious threat -- was proven wrong on 9-11. Its next idea -- that removing Saddam Hussein from power could ameliorate the problem -- has been steadily proven wrong over the past 12 months. The administration seems to have no new ideas left, and if it does, they will likely be as bad as the ones already tried.
Bush won praise after 9-11 for his moral clarity. This is a fine thing to have. Nevertheless, it is useless unless accompanied by some factual clarity as to the nature of the problem. Unfortunately for us all, neither Bush nor his team seems to have it.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the
media appears every Tuesday.