One bright morning in 1999, former counter-terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke walked into his office and knew something was wrong. His secretary of 10 years was looking at him in a way she never had before. A minute later, his aide runs in.
“Have you seen the cable?”
He hadn’t – but apparently Osama bin Laden had put a contract on his life. “Well,” Clarke quipped, “as Mr. Spock said to Captain Kirk, if you die we all move up one in rank.”
“Don’t you get it, Dick, Osama is trying to get you killed!”
“Well, that’s not surprising, since I’m trying to get him killed.”
It is an election year, and so partisan trenches have hastily been dug on either side of Clarke’s new book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. Lost in the mayhem is the idea that figuring out what went wrong before 9/11 and developing an effective counter-terror policy are too important to be garbled in partisan point-scoring. Few Americans have done more to prepare us for the fight ahead than Clarke, and so we should be grateful to him for his testimony and his long service to our country. Clarke’s mission to convince the U.S. that its most perilous threat is jihadism has finally succeeded. It is not an election issue; it is an American issue.
The Democrat-Republican blame game is misguided because everybody failed. A side-by-side assessment of the Clinton and Bush terror policies conducted by The Washington Post using testimony from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States found that “the two administrations pursued roughly the same policies before the terrorist strikes occurred.” Not only did Bush retain Clarke and his entire team in 2001, Clarke’s charge against Bush’s policy is not that it was wrong, but that it lacked priority. The truth is that no administration was ready to ram through the measures necessary to prepare against attacks. While Republicans and the airline industry killed plans for federalizing airport security and a more powerful Federal Aviation Administration, the Democrats and the American Civil Liberties Union were busy squelching proposals for passenger screening and tougher surveillance laws.
Clarke was ridiculed for his obsession with al Qaeda, prompting comparisons between Captain Ahab and his white whale. He had requested more money for the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban, more CIA money for intelligence and covert ops, more investment in the Predator drone, and the bombing of al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, which he considered the prime conveyor belt for terrorist production. How would Americans have reacted had Bush, taking up Clarke on his advice, declared in the summer of 2001 that al Qaeda was a grave and gathering danger that was planning devastating attacks on U.S. soil, and so had ordered a massive bombing campaign in Afghanistan? I don’t seem to remember the UCSB community being too thrilled about the bombing in Afghanistan one month after 9/11.
Obscured by the brouhaha is the central lesson of Clarke’s book: terrorism has been a deadly and inescapable reality for some time now, but no one had the will or foresight to do anything about it until it was too late. No matter, for however urgent a menace Islamic terrorism may have seemed to our presidents before, the age when our counter-terrorism arsenal consisted of the dispatch of lawyers, timorous diplomatic protest, occasional arrests and cruise missiles is over.
“This will be a long, hard struggle. There will be setbacks along the way. But just as no enemy could drive us from the fight to meet our challenges and protect our values in World War II and the Cold War, we will not be driven from the tough fight against terrorism today. Terrorism is the enemy of our generation, and we must prevail…” Those were Clinton’s words, in April 1996, to an audience of college students. But they could well have been Bush’s, too.
Joey Tartakovsky is a Daily Nexus columnist.