THE EDUCATION OF RICHARD CLARKE….Having finished Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies I now find myself almost afraid to comment on it. With the battle lines already drawn along the predictable lines, it almost seems pointless. If you’re a liberal he’s a heroic truthteller and if you’re a conservative he’s a bitter Bush hater. Is anyone going to change their mind at this point?

Maybe not, but let’s try to sort out what Clarke actually says and why he says it anyway, because I don’t think it’s entirely obvious just from the snippets we’ve seen on TV over the past week. The story is a little more complicated than it appears.

To begin with, the bulk of the book is a fairly straightforward description of terrorism during the 90s: what happened, how we responded, how we eventually put the al-Qaeda pieces together, and what kinds of institutional problems prevented a more effective response. It is largely concerned with Clarke’s efforts to get official Washington to take terrorism seriously ? he is scathing toward the FBI and the military, and only slightly less so toward the CIA ? and there’s not much question that during this period Clarke was fundamentally nonpartisan, mostly just a bulldog who was obsessed with terrorism and frequently upset that the rest of the world didn’t share his obsession.

So what was it that seemingly turned him into a Democratic partisan? Oddly enough, it appears that the turning point came in August 1998 and was a combination of two things: the Monica Lewinsky scandal and al-Qaeda’s attacks on two American embassies. It was only a couple of years earlier that the CIA had finally connected the dots and figured out that the al-Qaeda organization even existed, and the embassy bombings were their first major attack since then. Unfortunately, Republican opportunism made it hard to fight back. Although Clarke says he was “beyond mad” at Clinton for failing to keep his zipper shut, he became flatly infuriated with the recklessness of his conservative opposition:

I was angrier, almost incredulous, that the bitterness of Clinton’s enemies knew no bounds, that they intended to hurt not just Clinton but the country by turning the President’s personal problem into a global, public circus for their own political ends. Now I feared that the timing of the President’s interrogation about the scandal, August 17, would get in the way of our hitting the al Qaeda meeting.

….Our response to two deadly terroist attacks was an attempt to wipe out al Qaeda leadership, yet it quickly became grist for the right-wing talk radio mill and part of the Get Clinton campaign. That reaction made it more difficult to get approval for follow-up attacks on al Qaeda, such as my later attempts to persuade the Principals to forget about finding bin Laden and just bomb the training camps.

For a true believer like Clarke, the partisan posturing in response to what he thought was the most important problem facing our country must have convinced him that many Republicans simply didn’t take national security seriously. And what he saw when Bush took office must have convinced him even further:

  • Although neither administration ended up hitting back as hard as Clarke wanted, he makes it clear that at least the Clinton team considered it a high priority. The Bush team was more interested in missile defense and relations with China.

  • Even though the Clinton and Bush policies ended up being largely the same prior to 9/11 ? Condi Rice’s denials notwithstanding ? Clarke believes the Clinton team was better at execution. Several terrorist plots were foiled in December 1999 due to a heightened alert status approved by Clinton, and he thinks 9/11 could have been foiled too if the Bush team had adopted the same approach in the summer of 2001.

  • Finally, there was Bush’s post-9/11 response. Clarke believes that the Bush team failed to understand that al-Qaeda was something fundamentally new. “You give bin Laden too much credit,” Paul Wolfowitz said in an April 2000 meeting. “He could not do all these things…without a state sponsor.” As a result of this belief, after 9/11 the Bush team wanted to go after Iraq while Clarke wanted to go directly after al-Qaeda.

This last point is a critical one, of course, and goes to the heart of many of the post-9/11 differences between Bush and his critics. Here’s how Clarke describes what he learned when the intelligence community first discovered the existence of al-Qaeda in 1996:

The ingredients al Qaeda dreamed of for propagating its movement were a Christian government attacking a weaker Muslim region, allowing the new terrorist group to rally jihadists from many countries to come to the aid of the religious brethren. After the success of the jihad, the Muslim region would become a radical Islamic state, a breeding ground for more terrorists, a part of the eventual network of Islamic states that would make up the great new Caliphate, or Muslim empire.

From his point of view, then, Bush’s post-9/11 obsession with attacking states was simply playing into al-Qaeda’s hands. “It was as if Usama bin Laden, hidden in some high mountain redoubt, were engaging in long-range mind control of George Bush, chanting ‘invade Iraq, you must invade Iraq.’”

Clarke surely knows that it would have helped his credibility if he had treated the Clinton and Bush administrations more evenhandedly, but he obviously thought the differences between them ran too deep to do that. During the Clinton years the problem was one of turning a battleship, but he felt that at least everyone took it seriously and helped to push. Then in January 2001 he suddenly found himself working for an administration that didn’t take terrorism seriously, didn’t execute well even when they did acknowledge the problem, and then after 9/11 remained so stubbornly ignorant of al-Qaeda’s aims that they played directly into its hands.

Is it any wonder he has little good to say about them?

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