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June 2004

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The Past Four U.S. Administrations Critiqued
Review by Robert Chira

Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on TerrorAgainst All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terrorism. by Richard A. Clarke. New York: Free Press, 2004. Pp. 304. $27. cloth.

Upon assuming office, the president swears to defend the nation "against all enemies, both domestic and foreign." Richard Clarke, who spent twenty years as a career civil servant first in the Pentagon and then mostly in the White House under four presidents (Reagan, Bush, Sr., Clinton and the present Bush) specializing in our anti-terrorism efforts, has presented a trenchant critique of each administration's failures to meet the main terrorist threat that has evolved over that period: the radical Islamist "al Quaeda" network led by Usama bin Laden and a host of cells in various European and Asia nations, as well as the United States, bent on destroying our civilization.

Clarke devotes only about fifty pages out of 290 criticizing the failures of the present Bush administration to protect the homeland from an attack like that of 9-11, and his ideas of what should have been done in its aftermath. While the media, both print and TV, and Clarke himself in interviews, has focused on that period of immediate interest, the book is mainly a harsh indictment of all four previous presidents for failing to take the threat posed by these radical Islamists seriously.

Like anyone with hindsight, Clarke sees even more clearly than at the time that "al Quaeda" was targeting the American homeland and its citizens here, not just U.S. facilities abroad. He deduced such a big attack was coming after the original truck bomb attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993, the attempt to blow up Los Angeles airport, and threats which materialized around the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and "Millenium" turn in 2000, all domestic events before 9-11. He voices concern that futher attacks are probable as the enemy has not abated its efforts despite the arrest of many of its leaders and the probable destruction of any "command and control" al Quaeda ever exercised over the many cells that exist which share similar hatred for the United States and Western values.

As for the Reagan administration, Clarke seems to blame it for its misguided anti-communist crusade against the "evil empire" when in fact it was a toothless and decrepit adversary. That fervor led Reagan to intervene in the Afghanistan civil war, arming the "mujadeen" Islamists and training them to defeat the evil empire's atheistic forces. The unintended consequence of that intervention was radical Islam's ability to train its forces and use its material against the United States. That conflict also focused the administration on the vital need for allies and land bases in the Persian Gulf and Central Asian theatres, In time this led to the Bush, Sr. administation's establishing a base in Saudi Arabia in order to evict the Saddam Hussein Iraqi regime from its invasion and control over Kuwait. That administration convinced the worried Saudis that perhaps Iraq would go further and attack its oil fields as well. Hence, they acquiesced in the U.S. troops presence on the holy Islamic soil of Saudi Arabia, a presence that fueled al Quaeda's hatred of America.

Indeed, reading between the lines, Clarke seems to fault both Reagan for intervening in Afghanistan and Bush, Sr. for going to war against Iraq, since both polices inflamed radical Islamists to view the U.S. as an enemy of their religion.

While more partial to the Clinton administration's efforts and particularly the seriousness of national security adviser Sandy Berger and CIA director George Tenet, Clarke also levels harsh criticism at that team's failure to deal with the gathering storm. Thus, Clinton did not deal forcefully with Saudi Arabia when it stonewalled all investigations into the "Khobar Tower's" attack on U.S. barracks. He notes the FBI under Clinton failed to track down terrorists and instead focused on traditional law enforcement goals of the "war on drugs" and "organized crime." He also faults it for failing to respond to the attack on the USS Cole in October 1998. To some extent, Clarke references these events to the "Monica" scandal that he deems unworthy of serious consideration and the stupidity of the Republican Congress to focus on that instead of larger, nationally significant challenges like al Quaeda. But, he fails to adopt the "wag the dog" idea that Clinton lashed out with a missile attack on the Sudan laboratory and Afghan training camps of al Quaeda in order to deflect attention from his impeachment.

Clarke faults the present Bush team for its focus on toppling Saddam Hussein and its war and occupation of Iraq and seels little importance to it as a stabilizng force for the region, or as a base from which the U.S. can monitor and prevent further terrorist acts. Instead, he sees this effort as one more element in radicalizing Islamists as the United States again invades a Muslim country and tries to impose its values on it. Clarke's main worry is that radicalism is taking over in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and over the next few years it is those nations, not Iraq, that could be transformed into the vaguard of massive attacks against America and West.

Together with the recent staff reports of the 9-11 commission (found at www.9-11commission.org), the Clarke book is worth reading for a history of our lack of anti-terrorism protective measures from 1981 to the present. One can learn that Clarke and a few others were alone in their cries of "wolf"; that they saw the threat of al Quaeda coming to the U.S. homeland and not just to targets abroad. But few listened and most did nothing to deal with the threat, causing Clarke to become a very frustrated official who eventually asked to be relieved on his job a few months before 9-11. He then wrote this book, not to inject himself into the present political campaign and not to simply critique this administration. Indeed, a fair reading of his book shows that whether of one party or the other, all administrations failed to act despite the obvious, to Clarke, threat looming.

As for present efforts to deal with future 9-11 attacks, Clarke is not sanguine. He thinks the new Department of Homeland Security is inept, a vast bureacracy that cannot soon enough deal with the real crises that are bound to occur. He dismisses the FBI as totally dysfunctional with its case officers focused on law enforcement and unaware of the larger picture of terrorisms, and not even in communication with each other about the threats posed. While he praises the devotion of CIA director Tenet, he similarly dismisses the agency of having a grasp of the issues. As for resources and focus, he sees the war and occupation of Iraq as a wasted effort and diversion from the task of defeating radical Islam.

Clarke avoids the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and for the most part lauds Israel as an important U.S. ally in the war against terrorism. He fails to note the connection between the unlimited U.S. support of the present Israeli government's policies towards the Palestianians and the growth of radical Islam adherents. As that conflict daily rachets up to more and more extreme violence on both sides, Clarke fails to note the importance to U.S. interests that it end.

All in all, Clarke's book is a good history of the past twenty years of terrorism and its threats to the United States. Its focus on the failures of the past four administrations is more dispassionate and persuasive than its critique of the present administration's policy in Iraq. History will be the judge of whether that effort will be significant to combatting the war of terror being waged by radical Islamists against the U.S.


Robert Chira, a lawyer practicing in New York City, has followed foreign affairs since working as a summer intern for three successive years in the Department of State. He is a graduate of Harvard, the London School of Economics, and Columbia Law School.

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