How Not to Fight the War on Terror
Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror
Let's set aside, just for a moment, all the blustery politics that have swirled like a tornado around this book for the past several months. Against All Enemies opens on the morning of September 11, 2001, when Richard Clarke first learns that a plane has slammed into one of the World Trade Center towers in downtown Manhattan. As President Bush's former National Coordinator on Terrorism, Clarke offers a true insider's view of 9-11 like almost no one else can. This first chapter might be the single most fascinating account I've yet read of that horrible day. Even the barrage of ludicrous bureaucratic acronyms doesn't detract from its raw power.
That morning, Clarke shifted into overdrive. While President Bush read to kindergartners in Florida, and Vice President Cheney sought refuge in a bunker below the White House, Clarke managed the crisis from the Secure Video Conferencing Center in the West Wing. As department heads and other federal officials appeared on screen, Clarke began the frenzied process of directing the White House's complicated response to the catastrophe.
He initiated Continuity of Government, the program that relocates administration officials to safe sites during a national emergency. He directed an order to the FAA to ground nonessential air traffic. He got the military to launch fighter jets into the skies to protect the nation's capital.
Between tasks, of course, Clarke struggled to figure out who had committed these horrible crimes against the United States. In Clarke's case, he didn't have to struggle long. After working on defense and security issues for 30 years, after heading up counterterrorism operations at the highest echelons of the federal government for almost 10 years, he had a pretty good idea who was behind the atrocities. After all, he'd been running around Washington for months warning the Bush administration of the dire threat posed by al Qaeda. On 9-11, his worst nightmare finally came true.
As other reviewers have pointed out, this nail-biting opening chapter would make a damn good movie. Rarely do ordinary Americans get such a stripped naked view of the inner workings of our government in a time of crisis.
Of course, this isn't the reason most people will pick up the book. Recently, Against All Enemies has been relegated to the slush pile with other election year rants designed to sway voters during the most divisive, emotionally charged presidential campaign season in decades.
There are several reasons, though, why this book should be treated with greater seriousness than its detractors suggest. Clarke is not a run-of-the-mill Bushbasher. Yes, it's true that his book's fundamental premise is that our nation would be better off if Bush is voted out of office in November. But contrary to what you might have heard, this book isn't a simple hatchet job on the Bush administration. In this case, Clarke has the credentials, the expertise and an insider's knowledge of our nation's recent history to back up his denouncements of the administration.
Against All Enemies crafts a convincing argument that the Bushies have done more harm than good in securing our nation from terrorist attacks. The book covers the complex history of our nation's battle against terrorism from the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 all the way up through to the present. The middle chapters of the book provide a useful, general primer on the terrorist threats our nation has faced during this period. These chapters also explain the key policies and strategies developed by different administrations to counter terrorist threats throughout those years.
Despite all the press Clarke received when Against All Enemies was first published, many readers will be surprised by just how central Clarke was to U.S. counterterrorism activities over the past 25 years. He seems to be on the scene of every major catastrophe and triumph during that period, so much so that his account occasionally strains credulity.
Actually, Bush partisans have succeeded in pointing out several errors in Clarke's book. Most of them, as far as I can tell, are relatively trivial. For example, Clarke states at least twice in Against All Enemies that 278 Marines were killed when their barracks were bombed in Beirut in 1983. The actual number was 241.
Clarke also states that the Libyans downed Pan Am Flight 103 during the tenure of the first President Bush. This is technically untrue, since the plane was bombed in December 1988, a month before Bush took office. (Of course, at that time Bush had already been elected president and would soon have to deal with the crisis.)
Such errors are disturbing, certainly, but I have yet to see convincing rebuttals to the three main points Clarke attempts to make in Against All Enemies. The first point is that during the eight years Clinton was in office, the Democratic president recognized the threat posed by al Qaeda, and took several substantial steps to remedy the situation and publicize the problem.
The book's second major point is that, during the first eight months of 2001, the Bush administration ignored warnings about the al Qaeda threat, both from the outgoing Clinton administration and from Clarke, who, because of the nonpartisan nature of his position, stayed on as Bush's National Coordinator on Terrorism. The world had changed during Clinton's time in office, but the key members of the Bush administration had failed to change with it. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and the others still operated under a Cold War mentality, and they refused to learn anything from Clinton's experiences. Because of this, they ignored al Qaeda in favor of less pressing security concerns such as promoting a missile defense system.
Clarke's third and most damning point is that the Bush administration also failed to learn from its mistakes after 9-11. Instead of focusing on eliminating al Qaeda and increasing U.S. domestic security, the administration opted to invade Iraq, a country that had no significant collaborative relationship with the global Islamic terrorist movement responsible for 9-11.
The results, according to Clarke, have been disastrous. The Iraq war has had the effect of expanding the ranks of al Qaeda. Bush has also neglected more pressing fronts in the war on terror in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. And he's drained resources that should've been used to fund first responders at home. (According to Clarke, a survey of "168 American cities showed that 90 percent of them had not received any significant additional federal assistance since the September 11 attacks.")
In sum, Clarke believes invading Iraq has made us considerably less safe. He also believes we will pay for this mistake for a long, long time to come. At this point, of course, the stakes couldn't be higher. Let's just hope enough voters can digest Clarke's argument before November.