enemies and enemies: a brief review

Criticism against Richard Clarke’s book Against all Enemies has tended toward circumstantial ad hominem. Contentions are flying about truth, bias, and motive. How does a reader read the book is a good question. The answer is as an insider’s story. Its not a study of 9/11 or of policy, although it does describe these things, as it must.

But the ideas we’re dealing with about “good government” and who has the “ethos” to speak about it these days are big enough to warrant a glance at the text. Something about Clarke’s demeanor is intriguing in its implacability and in its risk. In may ways, he claims things in the book that, if untrue, could too easily be contradicted by too many people and such contradiction just hasnt surfaced. Hundreds of people could refute even the most diminutive charge. These hundreds have yet to surface. Two such major payers are George Tenet of the CIA and Colin Powell, Secretary of State, and these two have been silent on Clarke.

The book, however, isn’t as troubling as reactions have made it seem, yet its implications are complex. To me, there are complex and nuanced reasons why this administration has been such a disaster in foreign and domestic policy (for readers of this weblog, this opinion will come as no surprise). And this complexity comes as an underlying thesis in the book: the Bush administration may have been an effective administration 20, 30 years ago, but not now, because they came into power making inoperable assumptions about the nature of contemporary threats, at least this is Clarkes charge, and appeared to blow-off anything sniffing of Clinton. Nevertheless, much of the content of Against All Enemies, the mundane and the controversial, have been made public already, even the revolving door of heads of critical positions in counterterrorism.

The writing itself is revealing. Clarke’s prose is almost is as bizarre as his TV image. Unusually and dispassionately precise isn’t as accurate as I can get (Clive Cussler might have been able to give the dialogue some semblance of natural sound). On television Clarke comes off as having a trap-door memory, remembering dates, events, names, conversations, and tactical method with a weird unprepared quickness, packaged with an intimidating bluntness, embrasured with a grin. Clarke seems like the kind of guy who once he gets hold of something, given a task, given the meat to work with, he’s not going to let it go until someone screws the baton out of his fist. He also seems like the kind of guy who would put people off, simply because he has the correctives at the ready. He’d remember Continuity of Government procedures at the drop of a lead pipe (see Chapter 1). If we put hacks or irrational people in charge of COG, then thats what we do, I figure.

The book covers key counterterrorism events and decisions over the course of 3 administrations as the author sees them in the narrative. One part of the book bears mention and that’s a conversation between Clarke and Paul Wolfowitz in Chapter 5 (again, if untrue or beyond credibility, there were plenty of players at the meeting, including Richard Armitage, who could easily demolish the account). He sets things up this way:

Within a week of the Inauguration I wrote to Rice and Hadley asking urgently for a . . . Cabinet-level . . . meeting to review the immanent al Qaeda threat. Rice told me that the Principles Committee . . . would not address the issue until it had been framed by the Deputies. I assume that meant an opportunity for the Deputies to review the agenda. Instead it meant months of delay. The initial Deputies meeting to review terrorism policy could not be scheduled in February. Nor could it occur in March. Finally, in April (2001), the Deputies Committee met on terrorism for the first time. . . .

Rices deputy, Steve Hadley, began the meeting by asking me to brief the group. I turned immediately to the pending decisions needed to deal with al Qaeda. We need to put pressure on both the Taliban and al Qaeda by arming the Northern Alliance and other groups in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, we need to target bin Laden and his leadership by reinitiating flights of the Predator.” (231)

This leads to exchange between Clarke and Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfelds deputy, who viewed such an approach with skepticism. Wolfowitz appears, in Clarkes view, to disagree with these tactical measures in the context of an administration strategy against terrorism. In response to Clarkes explanation, that bin Ladens network poses an immediate threat, Wolfowitz says, Well, there are others that do as well, at least as much. Iraq terrorism, for example . . . Clarke continues:

I am unaware of any Iraq-sponsored terrorism directed at the United States, Paul, since 1993, and I think FBI and CIA concur in that judgment, right, John? I pointed at John McLaughlin, who was obviously not eager to get in the middle of a debate between the White House and the Pentagon but nonetheless replied, Yes, that is right, Dick. We have no evidence of any active Iraqi terrorist threat against the U.S. (italics mine)

The italics indicate a narrative issue that pervades the book and cuts into the analytical possibilities. McLaughlin was not eager. Factually speaking, its irrelevant what McLaughlin thought or what his motives were, unless Clarke cites evidence of McLaughlins direct intent or internal state. Its a minor point. But this is why Against All Enemies is not critical history but can be classified as a more free-form narrative in technique. I disagree with this decision on Clarkes part to characterize intent because its passive analysis and subverts the critical voice. Nevertheless, Wolfowitz continues to push the point. He appeals to state sponsored risk. He tortures ad ignorantiam (burden of proof fallacy) in the same manner as Vice President Dick Cheney, who maintains an Iraqi to al Qaeda tie by escalating the standard of burden of proof. Just because FBI and CIA have failed to find the linkages does not mean they dont exist, Wolfowitz argues (232). Of course, this kind of logic could implicate anyone or anything, which is the danger of the fallacy. Arrest that guy. How do you know hes not going to rob a convenience store tomorrow? Just because the FBI hasnt proved that Martians wont attack on Tuesday, doesnt mean that they arent hard at the plot. But little green men dont exist, anyway. Oh, yeah! Disprove it!

To continue:

It was getting a little too heated for the kind of meeting Steve Hadley liked to chair, but I thought it was important to get the extent of the disagreement out on the table: Al Qaeda plans major acts of terrorism against the U.S. It plans to overthrow Islamic governments and set up a radical multination Caliphate, and then go to war with non-Muslim states. The I said something I regretted as soon as I said it: They have published all of this and sometimes, as with Hitler in Mein Kampf, you have to believe that these people will actually do what they say they will do.

Immediately Wolfowitz seized on the Hitler reference. I resent any comparison between the Holocaust and this terrorist in Afghanistan.

I wasnt comparing the Holocaust to anything. I spoke slowly. I was saying that like Hitler, bin Laden has told us in advance what he plans to do and we would make a big mistake to ignore it.

To my surprise, Deputy Secretary of State Rich Armitage came to my rescue. We agree with Dick. We [meaning the State Department, headed by Colin Powell] see al Qaeda as a major threat and countering it as a major priority.

After this, Clarke takes the reader through the worries and the work of various agencies as they go about their business. He asserts a delay in action (which is an ambivalent term) because the Principles Committee was meeting with a full agenda and a backlog of Bush priority issues: the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, The Kyoto environment agreement, and Iraq. There was no time for terrorism (234).

At the now famous Principles meeting of September 4 Clarke claims:

Tenet and I spoke passionately about the urgency and seriousness of the al Qaeda threat. No one disagreed.

Powell laid out an aggressive strategy for putting pressure on Pakistan to side with us against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Money might be needed, he noted, but there was no plan to find the funds.

Rumsfeld . . . took the Wolfowitz line that there were other terrorist concerns, like Iraq, and whatever we did on this al Qaeda business, we had to deal with the other sources of terrorism . . .

Rice ended the discussion . . . .She asked that I finalize the broad policy document, a National Security Presidential Directive, on al Qaeda and send it to her for Presidential signature. (238)

Then 9/11 occurs and this:

After September 11, I thought that the arguments would be over, that finally everyone would see what had to be done and go about doing it. The right war was to fight for the elimination of al Qaeda, to stabilize nations threatened by radical Islamic terrorists, to offer a clear alternative to counter the radical theology and ideology of the terrorists, and to reduce our own vulnerabilities at home. It was an obvious agenda. (239)

Part of the issue with Clarke has been the why should we have listened to this guy response. This is a question that demands strategic disagreement, despite the tone of the first sentence above, which may have been rephrased for sharpness of transition: the more solid lead comes in the next sentence. Anyway, we know that devising of strategy, for whatever desired result, involves politics. But is there enough merit in Clarkes position to demand serious consideration?

Far be it from me to suggest that Clarke asserts a conflict (hes not the only one) in style, a conflict in priority, a conflict, sure, in ideology, and a conflict in how the administration and others should be framing the basic terror issue, which couches a deeper question of whether or not weve transitioned substantively from Cold War paradigms. On this weblog Ive linked to similar concomitant views in prior posts. This, again, is a nuanced issue and demands intellectual response, but it can be dangerous if simply taken as one partisan snark after the next. Currently, news flap is all over the deadend could the administration have prevented 9/11. This is another version of the could we have prevented anything that has already happened game.