Author: Richard A. Clarke
From the first time I saw an interview with Richard Clarke—which may have been on The Daily Show, although I can’t really remember—I’d been wanting to read his book, Against All Enemies. It’s not just because he was critical of the Bush Administration’s handling of the “war on terror”, but because he seemed to know what he was talking about. He’d been working on security in America for a long time—under various presidents, from both parties—and seemed to have a non-partisan analysis of it all. And I was impressed with the way he handled himself during interviews. (Mostly because, again, he seemed to know what he was talking about.)
So I finally got around to reading it, and I have mixed feelings on it. For the most part, it’s exactly what I was expecting: a behind-the-scenes look at how America had been handling its security, who al Qaeda is and what it stands for—although I have reservations about that, discussed below—and how different presidents handled security issues. In terms of the behind-the-scenes look, I can’t fault the book. It delivered on what I had been hoping for, and personally, I considered it worth reading for that. There are some negative aspects about the book, however, and it boils down to two things: it’s self-serving, and there is no analysis.
When I say that it’s self-serving, what I mean is that Clarke often rushes to take credit for things that were done well. Or, in retrospect, to say things like “I’d always known this was a problem, but nobody would listen to me” (not an actual quote). The most blatant example that stood out to me was a meeting he reported having with Israeli General David Ivry. Clarke was supposed to investigate whether Israel was selling arms to South Africa, in violation of the U.N.’s Anti-Apartheid ban, and he was meeting with Ivry to confront him on the issue.
This passage makes me roll my eyes for a couple of reasons. First of all, as mentioned, it’s self-serving; although not directly, Clarke is basically taking credit for Israel’s cessation of arms trading with South Africa. And the second reason it makes me roll my eyes is the little speech Clarke reportedly gave General Ivry; are we really to believe that Clarke appealed to Ivry’s conscience, and convinced him that apartheid is morally wrong, and that General Ivry then went on to convince the leaders of his country to cease selling arms to South Africa based on that? That the general was sitting there, staring guiltily at his hands like a little schoolboy, while Clarke lectured him, until he finally developed a backbone and stood up to his government? It’s a little… far-fetched. It is, in fact, how most lay-people assume that the government works; everybody’s in their own bubble, but “if someone could just go and reason with these people, they’d stop fighting each other all the time!” (If only Clarke had convinced Ivry that Israel’s occupation of Palestine was morally wrong, perhaps there would be a few thousand less dead Palestinians today.)
Sitting in Ivry’s office in the heart of the Kiriat, the walled-off complex in Tel Aviv that serves as Israel’s Pentagon, I laid out to the Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Defense what I knew and what I suspected about Israeli-South African cooperation. I omitted any reference to rumors of their cooperation on nuclear weapons, but mentioned joint development of long-range ballistic missiles and fighter aircraft. David was clearly uncomfortable, but I began to think that it was not just because some young American was sitting there accusing him and his government.
“I am not saying that we are doing these things, these rumors that you mention,” David began. “But we must have a defense industry; we cannot depend on other countries for our defense. A defense industry in a small country like ours has to export to stay alive, to keep costs in check. We do not sell to the Soviets or their allies, never. We have developed our own advanced weapons technologies. We have very smart, very capable engineers. America, however, will not buy our weapons. American defense contractors prevent the Pentagon from buying from us, they spread lies that what we have developed we stole from them. If we stole it from them, how is it they haven’t been able to develop some of these technologies that we have working, unmanned aerial vehicles, air-to-ground guided smart bombs, other things.”
I had just met General Ivry, but I thought I saw a side to him that was not hinted at in the CIA profile of him as a hard-ass fighter pilot. “General, I have been to South Africa. Have you?”
He hesitated. “Yes, yes I have.” Then he added a justification that did not admit to the weapons programs. “We have a very large Jewish community there that we have to insure is protected from the anti-Semitism.”
“Anti-Semitism is a terrible, ugly thing, General. I saw a small piece of it growing up. My house was the only non-Jewish family in the neighborhood. I saw what people would do to the temple, I saw the harassment, heard the epithets. But, General, apartheid is the same thing. It’s racism. Don’t you think a government based on apartheid is a sin?”
Ivry had been looking at his hands. Now he looked up and into my eyes. “Yes. Yes I do.”
The next week Ivry asked to appear before the Israeli cabinet. After the meeting the government of Israel announced that it was terminating any and all defense relations with South Africa and banning the import and export of defense items between the two countries, in keeping with the U.N. embargo.
There are other examples of Clarke making himself out to be the lone voice, in all of Washington, who saw the security of America clearly. And I’m not necessarily even denying that most, or even all, of the occurrences cited are true. He was in charge of security; if he and his colleagues thought al Qaeda was a threat, and nobody else did, then it’s not too surprising. It’s just tiring to read, time and time again. “I did this; I thought of that; nobody would listen to me about the other…” He does try to give credit where credit is due, in many places; the people that he worked with and respected get a lot of mention in the book, and high praise. But he reserves the most praise for himself.
The other problem I’d mentioned that I have with the book is the fact that Clarke has no deeper analysis of the issues. For him, terrorism can be boiled down to one thing: Islam gone awry. And the answer to terrorism is to jail and kill the terrorists. He does have some other answers to handling terrorism, and I’ll be quoting him a bit below, but jailing and killing seem to be his primary recommendations for dealing with the terrorists.
For Clarke, the reason that the terrorists blew up the World Trade Center, or the reason that they attacked the USS Cole, or the reason they’ve made any of the attacks on Americans, is because they’re religious extremists. They’re Muslims that have twisted the religion of Islam, bent on creating the Caliphate—which Clarke represents as a new country that the extremists want to create, which would be an Islamic theocracy, to be ruled by Shariah law. There are two problems I have with this:
- I’m not sure if Clarke’s understanding of the Caliphate is 100% accurate. I know that my understanding of the Caliphate is very shallow; I know very little about it at all. But Clarke seems to be taking his whole understanding of the Caliphate—and Islam in general—from the perspective of American security, and terrorism.
- To claim religion as the only underlying reason for terrorist acts is naive, at best. (Blatantly politically self-serving, at worst. But I’ll talk about why in a second…) Yes, there are some religious issues there, and yes, as Clarke says, groups like al Qaeda are not representative of the Muslim faith; it’s true that al Qaeda pushes a version of Islam that twists the religion, and most Muslims around the world will tell you that, if given half a chance. But what Clarke, and others, have to realize is that there are other, legitimate, reasons why so many Muslims—not to mention South Americans, West Indians, Indians, etc.—hate the West. Britain, the United States, and, yes, folks, even Canada, have been taking advantage of people in the Middle East and South America and Africa for centuries; exploiting the resources there for our own good, to the detriment of the people living there.
Unfortunately, Bush squandered all of that support, first by going cowboy-style with his “you’re either with us or against us” speeches, and then by invading Iraq, a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. As Clarke says:
Some of this definitely makes sense. Clarke has more faith in Clinton being able to help out the Israeli-Palestinian situation than I do; I think he adequately proved that he cared much more about helping Israel than in helping Palestine, but aside from that, this makes sense.
Any leader whom one can imagine as President on September 11 would have declared a “war on terrorism” and would have ended the Afghan sanctuary by invading. Almost any President would have stepped up domestic security and preparedness measures. Exactly what did George Bush do after September 11 that any other President one can imagine wouldn’t have done after such attacks? In the end, what was unique about George Bush’s reaction to terrorism was his selection as an object lesson for potential state sponsors of terrorism not a country that had been engaging in anti-U.S. terrorism but one that had not been, Iraq. It is hard to imagine another President making that choice.
Others (Clinton, the first Bush, Carter, Ford) might have tried to understand the phenomenon of terrorism, what led fifteen Saudis and four others to commit suicide to kill Americans. Others might have tried to build a world consensus to address the root causes, while using the moment to force what had been lethargic or doubting governments to arrest known terrorists and close front organizations. One can imagine Clinton trying one more time to force an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, going to Saudi Arabia and addressing the Muslim people in a moving appeal for religious tolerance, pushing hard for a security arrangement between India and Pakistan to create a nuclear-free zone, and stabilizing Pakistan. Such efforts may or may not have succeeded, but one thing we know they would not have done is inflame Islamic opinion and further radicalize Muslim youth into heightened hatred of America in the way that invading Iraq has done.
Clarke also makes the point that the invasion of Iraq has actually fuelled the growth of al Qaeda:
Again, although I agree with Clarke’s main point—that the States increased support for al Qaeda instead of diminishing it—I don’t agree with some of his analysis. I don’t know that al Qaeda attacked the States “as a first step in a campaign to replace existing governments around the world with a Taliban-like regime”—I think they attacked the States, mostly, because the States has been abusing its power in their region for the better part of a century, and they want the Americans to stop. It’s true that people like Osama bin Laden will support their cause by claiming to do it in the name of Islam; however, it’s also true that Bush has used Christianity in a way that I, as a Christian, find blasphemous. But Osama isn’t claiming to be fighting Christianity; he’s fighting the West. He has been able to separate his politics and his religion in a way that people in the West haven’t, which is why there is so much anti-Muslim sentiment. Well, one reason, anyway.
One would have thought that it was equally obvious after September 11 that high on the priority list would have been improving U.S. relations with the Islamic world, in order to dry up support for the deviant variant of Islam that is al Qaeda. After all, al Qaeda, the enemy that attacked us, was engaged in its own highly successful propaganda campaign to influence millions of Muslims to act against America, as a first step in a campaign to replace existing governments around the world with Taliban-like regimes. To defeat that enemy and prevent it from achieving its objectives, we needed to do more than just arrest and kill people. We and our values needed to be more appealing to Muslims than al Qaeda is. By all measures, however, al Qaeda and similar groups were increasing in support from Morocco to Indonesia. If that trend continues, the radical imams and their madrassas schools will … produce more terrorists than we jail or shoot. Far from addressing the popular appeal of the enemy that attacked us, Bush handed that enemy precisely what it wanted and needed, proof that America was at war with Islam, that we were the new Crusaders come to occupy Muslim land.
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. Nothing else could have so well negated all our other positive acts and so closed Muslim eyes and ears to our subsequent calls for reform in their region. It was 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 gives a lot of reasons why America should not have invaded Iraq. Actually, just two; the same two that everyone else gives: There was no reason to, and it’s just making things worse. Pretty much sums it up, actually. But why did they invade?
I’ll end with a final quote from Clarke, which pretty much sums up the book, for me.
The fall of the House of Saud would not come as a shock to many senior American officials who have followed the Middle East for years. Many have long feared, without being able to prove it, that that House and its military and security services are riddled with termites. Stung by the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and its replacement with an anti-American theocracy, many American officials have feared a repeat performance of that tragedy across the Gulf in Saudi Arabia. This fear probably played a role in the thinking of some in the Bush administration, including Dick Cheney, who wanted to go to war with Iraq. With Saddam gone, they believed, the U.S. could reduce its dependency on Saudi Arabia, could pull forces out of the Kingdom, and could open up an alternative source of oil.
Many around the world also feared that the world’s only remaining superpower would lash out, destabilizing nations and regions. America, after all, spends more money on its weapons and military than the next seven nations combined. Would a system that tolerated such spending act like a muscle-bound cowboy or, as the French feared, a hyper-power? Many in the Muslim world feared that America would, despite its promises, strike out against Islamic regimes and make Professor Sam Huntington’s Clash of Cultures theory a self-fulfilling prophecy. They feared that America would give only lip service to the Palestinian problem that was a litmus test for so many Muslims. Many in America sought ways of demonstrating patriotism. We knew there would be heightened security measures and greater expenditures, but we put aside our own fears of Big Brother and were prepared to unite as one people in the face of irrational hatred and unspeakable violence. Our leadership fell into the trap, fulfilling all of the worst fears of many around the world and here at home. Rather than seek to cultivate a unified global consensus to destroy the ideological roots of terrorism, we did in fact lash out in a largely unilateral and entirely irrelevant military adventure against a Muslim nation. Just as many nations thought we would, America pointedly snubbed the counsel of Arab friends and NATO allies, and sought security through the use of military muscle. It has left us less secure.
After September 11, Americans were asked to shop, not to sacrifice. Far from being asked to pay additional taxes to fund the war on terrorism, Americans were told that they would pay fewer taxes and we would pay for the war and additional security by passing on the costs to our grandchildren. The consensus against terrorism was shattered by such overreaching as the arrest of American citizens in the United States and their designation as “enemies” to be denied lawyers and due process. The Attorney General, rather than bringing us together, managed to persuade much of the country that the needed reforms of the Patriot Act were actually the beginning of fascism. Rather than seriously and systematically addressing the real security vulnerabilities in this country, the Administration succumbed to political pressure to reorganize agencies amid the “war on terrorism” and created an unwieldy bureaucracy. Unwilling to fund security upgrades at necessary levels, the Administration funded pork barrel procurement of high-tech weapons for small towns while police and fire personnel were laid off in high-threat cities.
September 11 erased memories of the unique process whereby George Bush had been selected as President a few months earlier. Now, as he stood with an arm around a New York fireman promising to get those who had destroyed the World Trade Center, he was every American’s President. His polls soared. He had a unique opportunity to unite America, to bring the United States together with allies around the world to fight terrorism and hate, to eliminate al Qaeda, to eliminate our vulnerabilities, to strengthen important nations threatened by radicalism. He did none of those things. He invaded Iraq.