Comments reveal deeper issues with White House decisionmaking in the war on terrorism
The AP reports
today that the White House has fired back at former-counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke, whose new book
includes many criticisms of the current White House and its counter-terrorism policies. Despite the headline "White House Rebuts Ex-Bush Adviser Claim", it appears that the White House is not
rebutting Clarke's claims, so much as trying to impeach his credibility because of his timing and political animus towards the Bush Administration.
"When you compare Dick Clarke's current rhetoric with his past comments and actions, the bedrock of his assertions comes crumbling down," said chief presidential spokesman Scott McClellan. He called Clarke's new book, criticizing the administration's handling of the post-Sept. 11 terrorism environment, "more about politics and book promotions than it is about policies." Analysis
* * *
Kerry's adviser on national security, Rand Beers, is a close associate of Clarke's and held the job as terrorism adviser under President Bush during part of 2002. Clarke quotes Beers in the book as asking his advice when Beers considered quitting because "they're using the war on terror politically."
Bartlett, the White House communications director, noted Clarke's friendship with Beers and the upcoming presidential election.
"We believe the timing is questionable," Bartlett said. "When (Clarke) left office, he had every opportunity" to make any grievances known.
: I find it interesting that the White House has chosen to engage the Clarke criticisms on the level of his personal credibility -- not the truth of the matters asserted. Surely, there are classification and security issues at stake which may preclude a full and fair response by the White House to the Clarke book on the merits. But given the political stakes of this issue -- which could ultimately decide the November 2004 election -- I would think the White House would find some
way to actually rebut Clarke's claims (if they weren't true) using unclassified arguments.
That said, I think there is some merit to what Mr. Clarke is asserting, given my limited knowledge of the subject area. For one thing, I completely agree with his criticism of National Security Advisor Condi Rice.
Clarke, Bush's former counterterrorism coordinator, had said among other things that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, "looked skeptical" when she was warned early in 2001 about the threat from al-Qaida. Dr. Rice
"Her facial expression gave me the impression that she had never heard the term before," Clarke wrote in his new book — "Against All Enemies" — that is scathingly critical of Bush's response to the 2001 terror attacks against New York and Washington.
Clarke said Rice, who previously worked for Bush's father, appeared not to recognize post-Cold War security issues and effectively demoted him within the national security council. He said Rice has an unusually close relationship with Bush, which "should have given her some maneuver room, some margin for shaping the agenda."
is a Cold War animal, through and through, and she does not have much depth when it comes to the post-Cold War security environment. Part of this makes sense -- you wouldn't get to the stage in your career where you could be an NSA unless you "grew up" in the Cold War and "made your bones" with doctoral and post-doctoral research on the Cold War. However, with the notable exception of contemporary security problems in the former Soviet Union, Dr. Rice has not effectively built an expertise in this area, to the President's detriment. She has also pushed away smart people brought into the White House to work in this area, including Mr. Clarke and retired Gen. Wayne Downing
. The Cold War ended during the first Bush Administration, but if you look at the brain trust in the current West Wing, that fact isn't reflected. I think that's a bad thing.
Second, I think there is a great deal of merit to the assertion that the focus on Iraq has diverted all sorts of political, military, economic and diplomatic energy away from the fight on terrorism. Notwithstanding the pedantic assertions of neo-cons like James Taranto
and others who constantly say we're not distracted, the pure military calculus of the issue is irrefutable. We have roughly 11,000 military personnel in Afghanistan right now according to GlobalSecurity.Org
. In terms of combat personnel, this includes a sizable special operations component and roughly one brigade combat team of light infantry. In Iraq today, we have more than 10 times that number of aggregate personnel, including 16 brigade combat teams of heavy and light forces. American infantry and special operations forces have played a cat-and-mouse game with Al Qaeda in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than two years, and one has to wonder about how effective this would've been if we had put some of the combat power into Afghanistan that we have put into Iraq.
Moreover, the U.S. has devoted so much combat power to Iraq for the near term that it has substantially constrained its ability to (1) deploy additional forces to existing theaters of operations, e.g. Afghanistan and (2) deploy forces to new hotspots like Haiti or the Philippines, which may or may not be part of the global war on terrorism. So the question is not merely "How has the war on Iraq affected the U.S. war on terrorism?
" -- the question is also "How has the war on Iraq constrained future exercises of American power abroad, by limiting the forces available to the President?
" I think it's safe to say that we did not foresee these long-term issues in early 2003, largely because the White House planned Operation Iraqi Freedom on the assumption that "we would be greeted as liberators." (See James Fallows' brilliant piece "Blind Into Baghdad
," as well as my Washington Monthly
piece "Faux Pax Americana
", for more on this.) Today, we are not only distracted from the more important war on Al Qaeda, but we are hamstrung in the other things we'd like to achieve in the world.
Economists like to talk about "marginal costs" and "marginal benefits" when discussing the pro's and con's (in economic terms) of a given decision by a rational actor. It is becoming increasingly clear, one year after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, that the marginal cost of our Iraqi operation outweighs the marginal benefit. And more importantly, that the U.S. may have bought more for its buck by putting the billions spent on OIF into other endeavors. Imagine the marginal benefit earned for every dollar spent if we put $87 billion into cooperative threat reduction, or into the Department of Homeland Security, or CBRNE training for local first responders, or any number of other anti-terrorism/counter-terrorism initiatives. I know enough about the appropriations process to know that federal money isn't entirely fungible, but I think this is a valid question because of the enormous debt we have taken on in order to liberate Iraq. It can still be argued that Saddam was a bad guy, and that OIF was a good thing for the people of Iraq and the region. But given America's finite resources, and the need to combat other threats in the world, I'm not sure that it can be argued that Operation Iraqi Freedom was the right choice at the right time
Mr. Clarke's book
paints some of these choices in stark relief, and I look forward to reading it.Update I
: Kevin Drum has a good rundown
of the White House's response to Mr. Clarke's criticisms. He also has a good note
on Mr. Clarke's appearance on 60 minutes.Update II
: Also see Josh Marshall's note
on VP Cheney and the Clarke book, and his note
on the clear disagreement between Mr. Clarke and Dr. Rice on Al Qaeda. Josh has a lot more on this subject, so keep reading below those two notes.Update III
: The New York Times has a Monday afternoon report
on its website detailing the counter-battery fire loosed at Mr. Clarke by the White House, including some pointed barbs from White House spokesman Scott McClellan and Vice President Dick Cheney. Here's a sample of the stuff being fired:
Mr. Cheney appeared on the conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh's radio program and alternately dismissed Mr. Clarke's credentials and questioned his expertise.
"He wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff," the vice president said.
Seeking to turn Mr. Clarke's government experience against him, Mr. Cheney noted that Mr. Clarke was in the government at the time of the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993; when American embassies were attacked in Africa in 1998; and when the warship Cole was attacked in 2000.
"The question that ought to be asked is, what were they doing in those days when he was in charge of counterterrorism efforts?" Mr. Cheney said.
* * *
Mr. McClellan implied that Mr. Clarke might be motivated at least in part by annoyance at effectively being demoted early in the Bush administration, and that he was trying to promote his book, set to go on sale today.
"Well, I mean, why all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner?" Mr. McClellan said. "This is one and a half years after he left the administration. And now all of a sudden he's raising these grave concerns that he claims he had.
"And I think you have to look at some of the facts. One, he is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He has written a book, and he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book."
"Let's look at the politics of it," Mr. McClellan added. "His best buddy is Rand Beers, who is the principal foreign policy adviser to Senator Kerry's campaign." Mr. Beers, a former State Department official, is a colleague of Mr. Clarke's at Harvard.
Regarding the Vice President's comments, I think Laura Rozen gets it right
. Don't you think it's odd that the White House counter-terrorism czar would be out of the loop when it came to meetings about counter-terrorism policy? And doesn't it say something about the war with Iraq that the counter-terrorism advisor was not part of the decisionmaking process? (Josh Marshall comes to this conclusion
too.) To me, it says three things. First, that Ron Suskind's reporting is right -- this White House really is run by its political offices (instead of its policy people). Second, that the opinions of professional policy people are probably less valued in this White House than is the norm. Third, that terrorism per se
was not the raison d'etre
for Operation Iraqi Freedom -- and that it never was a significant part of the decision to go to war.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan still isn't rebutting
any of the assertions made by Mr. Clarke -- he's merely trying to impeach his credibility. The White House has yet to make a defense of its actions on the merits. Even if we take the White House's salvo at face value -- that Mr. Clarke is political, is trying to sell his book, and is buddies with Sen. John Kerry -- we still have nothing from the White House to refute what Mr. Clarke is saying. The only credible White House charge is the one about why Mr. Clarke didn't speak up sooner. But maybe he did... he resigned in March 2003 from the White House, just as Operation Iraqi Freedom was being launched. What message do you think Mr. Clarke intended to send by his resignation?Update IV
: I just picked up a copy of Against All Enemies
at the local Barnes & Noble, where they graciously have it marked down 20% (plus 10% more for BN members). While in line, an elderly woman asked me if I had seen Mr. Clarke on 60 Minutes last night, and what I thought of it. (I was wearing an Army sweatshirt with Oakley sunglasses, and my military affiliation probably provoked the question.) I answered that I thought the book was worth reading, given Mr. Clarke's background and the gravity of his allegations. But afterwards, I couldn't get this encounter out of my head -- it really left an impression on me. Say what you will about the abstract nature of these issues and their complexity -- Mr. Clarke's allegations are serious enough to resonate with a little old lady from Santa Monica. If that's true, the American public may want more than soundbites and spin about security in this election cycle. We'll see.Update V
: David Frum, a former Bush Administration speech writer who now pens a 'blog for the National Review, has an interesting take
on the Clarke allegations from the perspective of someone who served in the same GWB West Wing.
I have yet to read his book, but I have studied his interview, and I think I understand his argument. What's Mr. Frum saying?
Clarke seems to have become so enwrapped in the technical problems of terrorism that he has lost sight of its inescapably political context. One reason that his line of argument did not get the hearing in the Bush admininstration that he would have wished was that he did tend to present counter-terrorism as a discrete series of investigations and apprehensions: an endless game of terrorist whack-a-mole. The Bush administration thought in bigger and bolder terms than that. They favored grand strategies over file management. Clarke may have thought that he was dramatizing his case by severing the threat from al Qaeda from its context in the political and economic failures of the Arab and Islamic world. Instead, his way of presenting his concerns seems to have had the perverse effect of making the terrorist issue look small and secondary - of deflating rather than underscoring its importance.
And this propensity continues.
The huge dividing line in the debate over terror remains just this: Is the United States engaged in a man-hunt - for bin Laden, for Zawahiri, for the surviving alumni of the al Qaeda training camps? - or is it engaged in a war with the ideas that animated those people and with the new generations of killers who will take up the terrorist mission even if the US were to succeed in extirpating every single terrorist now known to be alive and active? Clarke has aligned himself with one side of that debate - and it's the wrong side.
Is he saying that Mr. Clarke's allegations were right, but that he just wasn't articulate enough to sell his agenda to the President? Is Mr. Frum, who was part of the White House political apparatus, saying that Mr. Clarke's real failures were political -- not factual? Did the Bush Administration really
ignore a national security threat because one of its advisors couldn't find a way to sell the problem politically? If true, this statement by Mr. Frum is a damning indictment of the entire White House and National Security Council, and it indicates a near-total breakdown of the national security process. The idea behind the NSC staff, intelligence community, Joint Chiefs, and all the other systems in the national security process is to professionalize the decisions of the President
in this area -- not to politicize them
. Now comes Mr. Frum, saying essentially that the White House ignored its in-house expert on terrorism because he couldn't package it well enough. That's a really disturbing relevation -- especially because it comes from one of the President's own.