Richard A. Clarke is arguably one of Washington’s most fascinating figures. Clarke served in the State Department during the Reagan years, then in the National Security Council for more than a decade. From 1998 he was ‘Mr Counter-Terrorism’, sitting at the nexus of a host of secretive institutions and operations. He offers us a tour d'horizon of the mistakes and missed opportunities of American policy over some twenty years, ending with the recent Bush administration. Cannily, Clarke released the book at the same time as his testimony to the 9/11 Commission. The political impact of this book is still reverberating and it has caused a furore in the United States.
Clarke's survey of bureaucratic bungling takes no prisoners, flattering no president and no institution. However, his attack on the current Bush administration is vitriolic and has created the most interest. Clarke asserts that the Bush White House terminated the counter-terrorism strategy that had been pursued by Clinton until January 2001, was exceedingly slow to put anything else in place, and then after 9/11, led America into a pointless war with Iraq. Saddam’s regime, insists Clarke, had no substantiated links to terrorism after 1993. Much of the detail will already be familiar to readers who have followed this saga closely, but this book provides an especially authoritative account and makes important connections.
The weight of evidence that Clarke provides against the current administration is overwhelming. There can be no doubt that the Bush administration was deaf to those who sought to warn them about Al Qa’ida.
Indeed the Bush team at the White House clearly thought Clinton’s interest in eliminating Bin Laden rather eccentric. Remarkably, in January 2001, Bush’s incoming National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, actually downgraded Clarke's department, the Office of National Co-ordinator for Counterterrorism, ensuring that Clarke could no longer address the top-level NSC meetings. Rice knew that Bush preferred talking about missile defence, about the Chinese navy, North Korea – and above all Iraq. Meanwhile, throughout the first half of 2001 ideas about how to fight terrorism dragged through various subcommittees and were still unresolved on 4 September 2001. Intelligence forecasting Al Qa’ida attacks was coming in during the spring and summer of 2001, to which the European secret services reacted quickly, but American officials could not
envisage an attack on the ‘homeland’.
However, he does not assert that 9/11 could have been prevented, nor does he claim any special prescience for himself.
No less interesting is Clarke's argument that the Bush White House made a colossal mistake in launching war against Iraq, which has spawned intense hatred of both the United States and UK throughout the Middle East. The attention on Iraq, he insists, needs to be directed towards Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran where trouble is brewing. His irritation reflects, in part, his failure to sell his own approach to counter-terrorism designed to address the networked nature of ‘new terrorism’.
Many in the Pentagon were wedded to an old state-sponsored conception of terrorism derived from a close partnership with Israel. Equally convincing is his charge that, given the likelihood of further attacks on the United States, the billions lavished on the war in Iraq should have been spent on homeland defence. The budget for the fireman and policemen who will be in the front line of the next attack has been cut. Similar observations could be made about the imbalance of current UK policies.
'With globalization rushing upon us', an increasingly complex world will require difficult decisions to be taken with celerity, and accordingly two aspects of Washington as depicted by Clarke are troubling. First, the picture of fissiparous and risk-averse federal agencies, together with a bureaucratic culture that persistently refuses to adapt to the twenty-first century. Far from being a polemic, this is a timely reflection on the problems of how to make a Cold War colossus focus on ephemeral threats and improbable civil contingencies. Second, the arresting picture of George W. Bush as an individual who dislikes complex presentations and who – in Clarke’s words – likes ‘the bumper sticker description of the problem’. Down the years, we have become accustomed to historians retrospectively revising presidential reputations upwards. Long ago we had ‘Eisenhower revisionism’, more recently we have had to recalibrate Reagan following the publication of some surprisingly cerebral correspondence. However, for anyone hoping for a re-evaluation of George W. Bush, the message offered by this book is – don’t hold your breath.
Richard J. Aldrich
Professor of Politics, University of Nottingham. His latest book, Witness to
War, will be published by Transworld in
the Autumn of 2004.