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Book: Against All Enemies

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(As I look down at my watch as I start this entry, I see it is 9:11, eery). I had been eager to read this book, partly because I wanted to see someone stick it to Bush's international policies, partly because it will most likely change the course of the election to come, and partly because Richard Clarke's career, spanning thirty years, would certainly offer much needed perspective on the evolution of America's relationship to the Arab world.

What I found inside Against All Enemies was three books. The first part recounts the events of September 11th from Clarke's perspective. The second part recounts the history of US counter terrorism policy and relationship with the Arab world from the mid 1970s up until the end of Clinton's presidency, with a large focus on the Clinton presidency. The third and final part of the book deals with the Bush presidency, briefly discussing its failures before September 11th, and then focusing on the failures of his post-September-11th policy.

In my extended entry, I recount each of these sections in more detail, but what was most surprising to me, was that the majority of this book is not a "attack Bush" book. Blind to the 9/11 Commission and the rest of the media circus swirling around this book, and asked to write a one sentence summary of this book, I would say

A history of America's counter terrorism from Ronald Reagan to present

In this function, the book is very insightful. You should read this book regardless of political viewpoint, as I, at least, found it to be the first cohesive and detailed history of the emergence of radical Islamic terrorism as a threat to America. At some point in our history, we transitioned from a Cold War threat to a jihadist terrorism threat, and Clarke is able to pull apart history to show us how this transition took place. One also gets to see how the gears of the CIA and FBI interact, how the Executive Branch analyzes terrorist threats, how our security policies in the seventies and eighties have come to haunt us in the present day. As a national security primer, one would be well served in reading this book, regardless of your personal political leanings.

Listening to the media circus surrounding this book, though, one would believe that it's three hundred pages of non-stop Bush Administration critique. However, of the three hundred pages this book encompasses, less than a third deals specifically with Bush, and of this third, not all of it is necessarily criticizing. Sometimes Clarke makes Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld look good, sometimes he makes them look bad. In the balance, though, he does make them look bad (Wolfowitz never looks good), and the book closes with an essay that can stand by itself as an informed critique of the current Iraq War.

From his vantage point, Clarke levels two main charges against the Bush administration. The first is that the administration ignored his warnings about the seriousness of the al Qaeda threat before September 11th, and failed to enact policies that could have possibly (but not certainly) prevented the attacks. The second charge is that by engaging America in a war with Iraq, we have only worsened America's defenses to future terrorist attacks: we passed up the opportunity to capture al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, we stretched our military and National Guard forces thin, we stirred up anti-American sentiment by invading an Arab nation without provocation, we've underfunded security efforts at home, we failed to promote an alternate ideology to counterattack the fundamentalist, jihadist ideology, etc... (there are many more)

Of these two charges, the first has gotten the most attention in the press, perhaps because the 9/11 Commission is naturally focused on events leading up to 9/11, not the response that occurred afterward. We also seem to be at a stage where we are looking to assign blame to particular people and administrations for failing to prevent the attacks. However, I believe that it is the second of these charges that is the most important to dwell on. What we did or didn't do to prevent 9/11 at this point is moot: we as a nation now recognize the threat from al Qaeda, and whether or not someone underestimated the terrorist threat is a question for the past, not the future. Clarke, himself, doesn't focus very strongly on the first charge, and his recounting of the events before 9/11 are offered up mostly as facts without follow-up analysis and critique.

Our response to 9/11, however, is still a matter of current policy, and it is important, as we look at our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, to decide whether or not our current policies are the ones that will best prevent future terrorist attacks. Although most of the book is a memoir, Clarke shifts gears to offer a detailed critique of how our second Iraq War has weakened our defenses to terrorism, while at the same time outlining what our national security response should have been.

There is a third, implicit, criticism in the book, which is that career civil servants, qualified, intelligent people that Clarke respects, have all quit (despite many years of service), due to frustration and the way the Bush Administration is handling it's security policy. There is also another, similar criticism, which is that enlistments are certain to suffer as the Iraq War is pushing extended enlistments for Army, Marines, and National Guard alike. These are serious criticisms, but ones that unfortunately takes second stage.

Reading the book, it's easy to see why Clarke is a threatening target to the Bush Administration. Clarke's views on foreign policy and counter terrorism sit well enough to the right to fit in with a Republican administration. He has no problems with using force to achieve foreign policy goals, including assassinating foreign targets and supporting the proxy wars as a means of fighting Russia. He is also against the Kyoto Treaty and the International Criminal Court (p. 273).

Clarke will also be difficult to refute because he is extremely specific with names, quotes, and other details. I am surprised at the level of detail he was able to achieve, and I wonder what sort of journal he has been keeping in order to make this book possible. Given that the White House has had a copy for several months now, and has chosen to challenge the book primarily with character rather than factual attacks, it would appear to me at least that Clarke is probably accurate in most of his recollection. It would be too simple to find the people involved in the conversations he recounts, or the documents that he refers to, produce them, and show Clarke to be incorrect if that were the case.

Even if you don't read my extended notes that follow, I would recommend reading the transcript of Clarke's, Berger's, Tenet's, and Armitage's testimony to the 9/11 commission, contradictions in Rice's statements/attacks, and the transcript of Rice's 60 Minutes interview, which includes this wonderful exchange

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I'm saying that the administration took seriously the threat - let's talk about what we did.

ED BRADLEY:: But no, I understand-

ED BRADLEY:: But you - you listed -


ED BRADLEY:: You'd listed the things that you'd done. But here is the perception. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff at that time says you pushed it to the back burner. The former Secretary of the Treasury says it was not a priority. Mr. Clarke says it was not a priority. And at least, according to Bob Woodward, who talked with the president, he is saying that for the president, it wasn't urgent. He didn't have a sense of urgency about al Qaeda. That's the perception here.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Ed, I don't know what a sense of urgency - any greater than the one that we had, would have caused us to do differently.

This entry is almost incomplete, and I'm too lazy to finish. I have yet to write my summary of Part III, and my Part II summary is still a bit scattered.

Part 1

This first chapter, recounting Clarke's experiences on September 11th, reads like a Clancy's bureaucratic spy thrillers, replete with acronyms from the Executive Branch, DOD, FBI, and CIA lexicons. As Tom Clancy's novels have simulated terrorist threats (airplanes flown into buildings and WMDs) and America's response, the analogy is appropriate, even if it does pain me to make that comparison. Richard Clarke, with his hawkish view of foreign policy, civil servant background, and bureaucratic maneuvering, would be well-suited as Clancy's main character. Later in the book, there's even a scene featuring General Wes Clark that's straight out of an action movie: "An armored vehicle careered off a ridgeline and burst into flames. Clark dragged out some of those inside before the vehicle exploded."

Putting the comparison aside, though, I found myself immediately pulled into the events of that day, juxtaposing my own recollections with that day and adding in Clarke's recounting to paint a bigger picture and broadening my understanding of what occurred. In the initial response to the attacks, most of the players in the administration come off well. Rice looks noble in stepping aside to let Clarke run the show. Clarke takes the blame for blocking Bush's return to Washington and making our leadership appear temporarily weak. About the only person that looks bad is Lynn Cheney, who keeps turning down the volume on the crisis conference so that she can listen to CNN (p. 18).

The first chapter ends, though, with the seeds of Clarke's thesis. Clarke recounts how Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz are both eager to know if Iraq was involved, and Wolfowitz in particular is incredulous that Al Qaeda could have accomplished such a sophisticated attack without Iraq's sponsorship.

There is also the much debated highlight from this book, where Clarke recounts a meeting with Bush on September the 12th where Bush pulls Clarke aside and forcefully says, "Look into Iraq, Saddam." This meeting was initially denied by the Bush Administration, with McClellan claiming, "there's no record of the president being in the situation room on that day." (think about that one for a bit) In Rice's appearance on 60 Minutes, though, they reversed their position and admitted that the meeting did occur.

Part II

Listening to the the 9/11 commission testimonies, I didn't even realize this part of the book existed, yet it was probably the most valuable to me. Through Richard Clarke's eyes, he recounts American foreign policy as the Cold War ends and policy makers begin to realize the importance of Arab nations.

The second section first takes us into a brief history of foreign policy's ugly past. There were the attacks on the Marine barracks in Beirut during Reagan's presidency, to which we did nothing. We also did nothing in response to the Pan Am 103 downing. In the ironic endings department, there was our support of Iraq in the its war against Iran in which we provided Iraq with intelligence data, loans, and arms (indirectly through Saudi Arabia and Egypt). There was also Cold War Afghanistan, where Reagan used the country in his proxy wars against the Soviet Union. Betting that we could bankrupt the Soviet Union, we began providing training and stinger rockets to Afghani rebels and taught them how to shoot down Soviet gunships. We also asked the Saudis for an army of volunteers to go fight in Afghanistan. The Saudis turned to Osama bin Laden to help raise this army (p. 52). The Afghani fighters did really well, and the Soviet Union fell not too long after pulling their troops completely out of Afghanistan. After this, though, America turned away from Afghanistan and left it to its own devices.

We then skip ahead to the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, which Clarke provides an interesting history of. Needing to protect the Saudi oil fields against any further advance of Saddam's troops, we went to the Saudis to ask permission for us to send troops into their nation. Apparently Osama bin Laden had also offered his troops to defend against Iraq, but in the end the Saudis chose us.

Clarke notes two mistakes with how we finished the first war in Iraq: first, when we had cut off Iraqi troops moving back into Iraq from Kuwait, our troops were ordered to stop shooting as the press had begun to report that we were effectively shooting fish in a barrel. While there were many poorly trained elements, we were also picking off the well-trained Republican Guard troops. Had we continued fighting, we could have wiped out the Republican Guard; instead, we let them back into Iraq, where they were used to quell uprisings against Saddam. This leads to a second mistake that Clarke notes, which is that when the Shi'a did began to rise up against Saddam, we did nothing to protect them. While Clarke doesn't suggest that we march into Baghdad, we should have at least led a mission to protect them. By not doing so, we ensured that Saddam was able to re-solidify his power.

I am going to stop summarizing this section now as I am tired, but there were two other examples of American responses to attacks that Clarke cites that come to mind: In 2000 the USS Cole was attacked. The US response: nothing. There was also Somalia, which demonstrated that American forces could easily be made to withdraw their presence (Clarke argues that we already had plans to withdraw, but the Black Hawk Down incident gave the appearance of causality). In another example of our proxy war in Afghanistan coming to bite us in the ass, Clarke points out that the Somali troops probably received their training in shooting down helicopters from the same people we trained to shoot down Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan.

Highlights from part II:

  • In 1992, al Qaeda was sending agents into Bosnia to try and stir up muslim elements there. In 1993, the first World Trade Center attack occurred, but at the time no one knew of al Qaeda's existence. Spring 1996, learned of al Qaeda's existence (p. 148)
  • There are still some classified bits in the book that spike curiosity, including multiple references to an "intelligence operation" against Iran (p. 129) that put an end to Iran directing terrorist operations against the United States.
  • Clarke was investigating security for the Olympic Games in Atlanta. He asked, "what if someone blows up a 747 over the Olympic Stadium, or even flies one into the stadium?" The response was, "Sounds like Tom Clancy to me." (p. 106)
  • al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and a chemical plant in the Sudan three days after Clinton's testimony in the Lewinsky scandal (p.186)
  • Despite multiple authorizations from Clinton to assassinate bin Laden, the CIA still insists that it never had authorization (p. 204). This issue is still being debated before the 9/11 Commission.
  • In the sadly humorous department, Clarke recounts a meeting with the FBI after the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in Tokyo. The FBI had nothing in their files on the Aum, and Clarke was concerned that they might be in New York:

    Clarke: "How can you be sure there are no Aum here, John [O'Neill], just because you don't have an FBI file on them? Did you look them up in the Manhatten phone book to see if they're there?" O'Neill: "You serious?" O'Neill instructs a deputy to contact the FBI New York field office. A while later, he gets a note back. O'Neill: "Fuck. They're in the phone book, on East 48th Street at Fifth."

  • Clinton read Rainbow Six and asked his aides for comments (p. 162)

Part III

To be continued... (probably never to be finished)

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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on March 30, 2004 9:55 PM.

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