Not a good week, so far, for George W. Bush. Before the weekend he was pulling even with John Kerry, and seemed to have made it through the crisis of losing an ally, the conservative Spanish government. Then along comes former White House counter-terrorism coordinator, Richard Clarke to say, in a 60 Minutes interview and a new book, that Bush was doing a “terrible job” on fighting terror and that his administration was obsessed with Saddam and not nearly obsessed enough with Osama bin Laden. Bad news for a president running on his national security record.
In the book, Clarke, who served under Reagan, the first Bush, and Clinton, and then worked for the second Bush for two years, retired 13 months ago, claims that many of Bush’s advisors came into office determined to make war on Iraq. After 9/11, the rapid shift of focus to Saddam Hussein, Clarke writes, “launched an unnecessary and costly war in Iraq that strengthened the fundamentalist, radical Islamic terrorist movement worldwide.”
Among the motives for the war, Clarke argues, was the 2002 midterm election. “The crisis was manufactured, and Bush political adviser Karl Rove was telling Republicans to ‘run on the war.’” Clarke refers to Vice President Dick Cheney as a “right-wing ideologue,” who rejected facts inconsistent with the administration’s political outlook and goals.
Clarke recounts one particular incident that illustrates Bush’s unbreakable intent to make a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. On Sept. 12, Bush met with Clarke and several other aides, asking them to “go back over everything” to “see if Saddam did this.” When Clarke corrected him that al Qaeda did it, Bush responded, “I know, I know…see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred.”
This encounter is in dispute (deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said it never happened (also on “60 Minutes”), while two people who were present confirmed Clarke’s account.) But as the Washington Post notes, the book is important because it is “the first detailed portrait of the Bush administration’s wartime performance by a major participant.” Nor is Clarke some peacenik preacher who has been an outspoken critic of the White House. Rather, Clarke’s national security views are usually hawkish, sitting him ideologically next to leading figures in the Bush administration. For instance, he worked closely with Wolfowitz and Cheney in 1991 to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Clarke sided with Wolfowitz to extend the first Gulf war long enough to destroy Iraq’s Republican Guard. Clarke was also principal author of the U.S. plan to rid Iraq of weapons under threat of further military force.
Clarke, like former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill (who also came out against the administration) before him, certainly holds nothing back in his critique of Bush. Although he does say that he doesn’t agree with the description of Bush as “a dumb, lazy rich kid”. Instead, he said that Bush has “a results-oriented mind, but he looked for the simple solution, the bumper sticker description of the problem.”
In an interview with “60 Minutes” broadcast Sunday, he questions Bush’s campaign strategy: “Frankly,” he said, “I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he’s done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11. Maybe. We’ll never know.
I think he’s done a terrible job on the war against terrorism.”
“Nothing America could have done would have provided al Qaeda and its new generation of cloned groups a better recruitment device than our unprovoked invasion of an oil-rich Arab country.
“One shudders to think what additional errors [Mr. Bush] will make in the next four years to strengthen the al Qaeda follow-ons: attacking Syria or Iran, undermining the Saudi regime without a plan for a successor state?”
In rebuttal to Clarke’s arguments, the White House released a fact sheet Setting the Record Straight with an outline of “myths” vs. “facts.” Here, they try to undermine Clarke’s credibility; Rice did effectively demotee him within the National Security Council staff. Among the “facts”, the White House claims theyimmediately recognized the threat of al Qaeda and began working on a comprehensive strategy to eliminate the terrorist organization. They also say that they listened to Dick Clarke and acted on some of his ideas.
Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said the book’s timing (immediately before a presidential campaign) showed that it was “more about politics than policy.”
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, National Security advisor Condoleeza Rice addresses some of Clarke’s comments—not directly (she never mentions his name) but clearly, the timing of the piece was no accident (She may have a personal beef as well: Clarke claimed that Rice appeared never to have heard of al Qaeda until she was warned early in 2001 about the terrorist organization and that she “looked skeptical” about the warnings). In particular, she counters the notion that the Clinton administration had a well-established plan for dealing with al Qaeda that she ignored (Clarke said that nearly all of Bush’s advisors believed Clinton had been “overly obsessed with al Qaeda.”) Rice writes:
“In response to my request for a presidential initiative, the counterterrorism team, which we had held over from the Clinton administration, suggested several ideas, some of which had been around since 1998 but had not been adopted. No al Qaeda plan was turned over to the new administration.”
Further, she justifies Bush’s focus on Iraq:
“In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the president, like all Americans, wanted to know who was responsible. It would have been irresponsible not to ask a question about all possible links, including to Iraq — a nation that had supported terrorism and had tried to kill a former president. Once advised that there was no evidence that Iraq was responsible for Sept. 11, the president told his National Security Council on Sept. 17 that Iraq was not on the agenda and that the initial U.S. response to Sept. 11 would be to target al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal is highly critical of Clarke, claiming that he’s just as responsible of bad intelligence as anyone else:
“As for Mr. Clarke, he is now flacking his book by blaming the Bush Administration for failing to capture Osama bin Laden while offering the novel sociological insight (in last week’s Time magazine) that “maybe we should be asking why the terrorists hate us.” We’d take Mr. Clarke’s words more seriously if, as America’s lead anti-terror official from 1998 through Mr. Bush’s first two years, he had warned someone that al Qaeda might have a strategy to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings. He already knew that an Egyptian had flown one plane into the drink and that al Qaeda was interested in flight training. Why didn’t Mr. Clarke connect those dots?”
Clarke’s comments come just a day before public testimony in front of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. Among those called to testify is Clarke himself, along with former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright, former defense secretary William S. Cohen and former national security adviser Samuel R. Berger. In his book, Clarke was critical of all four administrations he served under, specifically citing the Clinton administration as also not doing enough to fight al Qaeda. However, his strongest criticism is of the current Bush administration.
According the Wall Street Journal, both Republican and Democratic commissioners said they are focusing closely on what happened after Bush was alerted to the attack while he was visiting a school in Florida. There is a dispute over whether Bush waited seconds, or several minutes, before leaving the school, and whether those few minutes could have affected the outcome on Sept. 11. The panel’s investigators are looking at questions such as the timeliness of presidential orders about intercepting the jet that at 9:37 a.m. plowed into the Pentagon.
The Journal writes:
“Among other things, the commission is examining such questions as how long Mr. Bush remained in a Florida classroom just after the World Trade Center strikes, whether there really was a threat to Air Force One that day, how effectively American fighter jets reacted to the attacks, and who activated the national-emergency-response plan.”
Philip Shenon wrote in Saturday’s New York Times:
“Senior Clinton administration officials called to testify next week before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks say they are prepared to detail how they repeatedly warned their Bush administration counterparts in late 2000 that Al Qaeda posed the worst security threat facing the nation — and how the new administration was slow to act.”
The Wall Street Journal comments that it was a bad idea for the commission to investigate now, while the election season is in full swing. The politicizing that goes on during an election season can’t be good for an independent commission. The Journal:
“It was always a terrible idea for the September 11 commission to drop its report in the middle of a Presidential election campaign, and we are now seeing why. That body is turning into a fiasco of partisanship and political score-settling.
To be precise, Democrats are using the commission as a platform to assail the Bush Administration for fumbling the war on terror, implicitly blaming it even for 9/11.
The 9/11 Commission has instead been driven from the start by meaner political calculations: To appease the demands of those (few) victims’ families looking for someone to blame, and to provide a vehicle to embarrass the Bush Administration.”
It’s a good point, but, if the Bush administration did make some crucial mistakes in reacting to 9/11, isn’t it just as important for voters to be aware of that before the election? And considering Bush wants to run his election on the claims that he’s a great leader in times of war and terror, he has to be prepared for these claims to be questioned.
According to Time Magazine, it’s not just Democrats who want to use the commission for political purposes. In last week’s issue, they write that an “examination of the panel members’ backgrounds reveals a web of sticky connections to the Bush team and, in one case, an alleged lack of investigative curiosity.” Time goes on to say that “the nine-member panel is co-chaired by a Democrat, former Senator Charles Robb, and includes at least one proven maverick, Senator John McCain, who was put there, according to an official, to provide “instant credibility,” but many other members of the panel are part of a “who’s who” of friends to the Bush administration.
Whatever the result of the commission, it will surely have an impact on the election in November.