Against All Enemies by Richard Clarke, The Daily Demarche Review
This book had a reputation long before I read it. Clarke’s claims that Iraq dominated the immediate post 9/11 agenda within the Bush administration, to the detriment of the greater war on terror, made front page news last year. The timing of the book, and the release of its contents, could not have been more fortuitous for Clarke, coming as it did during the 9/11 commission hearings and in the run up to the presidential election.
When Against All Enemies
arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago, I didn’t know if I wanted to read it. I had already heard and read about the portions of the book that the media had sprayed around, and I figured the book to be a one-trick pony, the type of hackneyed polemic that seem to have spawned like gremlins
when doused with water.
However, having read the book, I must say that the media hype was, unsurprisingly, quite wide of the mark. The impression that I have from the book is that the author intended it to read as a narrative of the war on terror from an insider’s perspective and wrote most of it as such: the majority of the book is a candid account, filled with information only an insider could deliver. Occasionally one finds sprinkled throughout the text snide references to various elements within the Bush administration known to favor going to war with Iraq again, i.e. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, and of course the president. The last chapter or so is also devoted to the author’s description of the “follies” of going into Iraq. The way Clarke has done this leaves me with the impression that he added his Iraq-related commentary after he had written most of the book, adding a chapter to the end and inserting occasional invective in strategic places throughout the book. Readers are invited to speculate on why he may have done this.
According to the book’s dust cover, Richard Clarke is a career civil servant who left government after a long career that terminated as a member of the Senior Executive Service (the Civil Service’s equivalent to the military’s flag officers). Clarke started out as a civilian analyst in the Pentagon, and served stints at State (as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Intelligence and Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs), and the National Security Council, as “Terrorism Czar” to Presidents Clinton and Bush. All told, Clarke worked for three presidents: Bush the Elder, Bush the Younger, and Clinton.
From this resume, and from the way the book is written, I gather that Clarke is a bare-knuckles type of bureaucrat, who has come as close as anyone can at mastering the peculiar art of bureaucratic infighting. Readers may be surprised to hear that such a creature as a hard-nosed bureaucrat exists, but I assure you that they do. Clearly he was quite capable, and quite successful by any measure. Nonetheless, I believe after reading this book that his unerring focus on a few of the trees, so to speak, led him to become an excellent servant of the American people, but ultimately obscured his ability to see the forest. I shall explain what I mean by that in the course of this review.
As I began reading Against All Enemies, I was struck with how much Richard Clarke agreed with Norman Podhoretz, of all people, regarding the history of how America got involved with and, inadvertently encouraged, terrorism. Podhoretz is, of course, an arch neo-conservative, and Clarke is now a poster child for those who disagree with much of the neocon project. Yet on history they both agree.
Podhoretz argues in his seminal essay World War IV: How it Started, What it Means, and Why We Have to Win that beginning in 1970, when PLO-affiliated terrorists began killing and kidnapping American diplomats in Sudan and Lebanon, the United States acted tamely in dealing with the terrorists, sending a message that little, if any, harm would come to those who employed terrorism against America. Podhoretz traces this pattern of inaction from its origins in the seventies, through, among others, Iranian-backed kidnappings and bombings of Americans in the 80s, Libyan terrorism in the same decade, al Qaeda’s actions against Americans in the 90s, and finishes with the terrible attacks of September 11. In virtually every case, save American bombing of Libya following the bombing of a West German discotheque by Libyan intelligence agents, Podhoretz argues that, rather than send a strong message, via retaliation, that might have deterred future terrorism. Clarke’s narrative, while not as exhaustive as that of Podhoretz, generally takes the same tack, albeit from an insider’s perspective.
My opinion of Clarke and his book notwithstanding, I truly enjoyed reading, from an insider’s perspective, the goings-on of the US government – it is the kind of thing I like reading (call me a boring bureaucrat, I know). Naturally, when reading such accounts, particularly when they involve emotional subject matter, one must remember that the narrator is a fallible human being, and his account, while privileged to benefit from his perspective, is also biased by it. So it is with Clarke.
One of the many things in the book with which I take issue is that of Clarke’s portrayal of Madeleine Albright and her cronies. It is practically universal consensus among FSOs that I know who have been around long enough that Albright and Warren Christopher, her predecessor, were the two worst things ever to happen to the Foreign Service, pushing James Baker into third place. This consensus comes from people such as a former boss of mine, an avowed liberal, who loathed Albright with a most intense and amazing passion. The reason for this had little to do with politics or policies, but the general contempt Albright had for the Department’s Civil and Foreign Service personnel (i.e. anyone not within her small coterie of sycophants), and in the case of Christopher, the general perception that he lacked the most basic things necessary to do the job, i.e. a pulse.
Both Albright and Christopher, and from what I understand James Baker should also be included in this august group, allowed the Department to fall into a perilous state of neglect, through both lack of management/oversight and a lack of ability to secure funding from congress for even the most basic needs of the Department, such as embassy security and information systems. Having joined the Foreign Service during the Albright years, I can attest to her incompetence.
But I digress.
Sorry about that slight diversion. Sure was cathartic, though.
Having established my contention that Albright was a terrible steward of the State Department who surrounded herself with egocentric cronies, you, gentle reader, could probably hazard a guess at my reaction when it became evident that Clarke was chummy with Albright. Suffice to say, his credibility took a hit in my eyes. Clarke, who throughout his book claims to have been responsible for every good idea ever to have come out of the government, states that he and Albright agreed on a plan to fortify or relocate all US Embassies worldwide that were deemed not secure against terrorist attack. Months later, however, Clarke tells us that when the State Department’s budget request is sent to congress, there is no request for money for embassy security improvements. Clarke seems to imply that the bureaucratic culture of the Department resisted all attempts to improve the security situation and that this was the reason for the omission; I would have thought that, since Clarke and Albright were so chummy, he would have realized that she wasn’t competent enough to pull it off. Guess not.
This leads me to one of the greatest problems I have with Richard Clarke: he comes off as a Cassandra. Against All Enemies makes it sound as if everything would have been better, if only everyone had listened to Clarke. He and his inner circle come across as a lone band of wolves, howling in the wilderness about terrorism, with no one there to hear him. After a while, it gets old, and it makes me wonder if some of the narcissism that infested Clinton and his political appointees did not rub off on him as well.
In the end, however, Clarke admits that even had everyone done everything they could (meaning had they only listened to him), the attacks of 9/11, or something like them, would nonetheless have occurred. Clarke believes that there was simply no way of knowing that such attacks were going to happen at that specific time, in that specific way. Glad to see he can at least admit that much.
Ultimately, the greatest failing of Against All Enemies is, as I alluded to above, a failure of vision. For someone so involved with some of the epochal moments of our time, with such an insider’s view, Clarke’s prescription to solve the problem is painfully myopic. Clarke’s recommendation for dealing with al Qaeda and the greater issue of Islamic fascism is threefold: to fix America’s homeland security problems, to create a “counterweight ideology” to Islamic fascism, and to work with “key countries... to strengthen open governments and make it possible politically, economically, and socially for them to go after the roots of al Qaeda-style terrorism.” Clarke’s key countries are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
That all sound great. But how do you do that? Clarke’s contention is that going into Iraq served none of these purposes. That’s where he is wrong. True, it is debatable whether or not invading Iraq improved the security of the American homeland in the short-term, but I believe that it did when looked at from a medium or long term perspective. Click here for some of my thoughts on why this might be the case.
As far as Clarke’s second point, on the need to create a counterweight ideology to Islamic fascism: now that both Iraq and Afghanistan are on the bumpy road to fully-fledged democracy, now that there is hope for the first time in years for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now that there is the smallest glimmer of hope for democracy to sprout in Saudi Arabia, and now that the illiberal regimes in Syria and Iran are clinging together for dear life, I think we can say that we have found a counterweight ideology to Islamic fascism: it is called freedom. A truly free, democratic country in the middle east may not like the US and may not like Americans. Neither does France, but there is not much to worry about from France engaging in terrorism against the US.
Focusing on the “four key countries” in which to propagate social, economic, and political change sounds to me like allowing the illiberal leadership of those countries to continue the status quo. Clarke does a good job in outlining why Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran are important in the region and to the war on terror (and in detailing what he perceives to be our policy failures in those countries), but he fails to put forth and realistic options on how to do this. He suggests that the US give more aid to Pakistan’s General Musharraf in order to “turn the tide... and return it to stability”, but that is hardly a comprehensive recipe for creating the kind of political change that Clarke envisions.
Rather than list four key countries, Clarke should have looked at the entire region en toto. When the entire region of the Middle East is able to shed the shackles of illiberalism, then the four key countries that Clarke lists will join in. And that is when we will see the death of al Qaeda-style terrorism. It may take a while, and there will be times when we will take two steps forward, only to take one step back. Such is the nature of foreign policy. But the seeds, planted in Afghanistan and Iraq, seem to be taking root. To continue to nurture them will require the attention of democracies everywhere, for years to come. The only way out is through, and the only guaranteed way to fail is to stop trying. I think that Clarke, from his perch high atop the Washington bureaucracy, failed to see that. But then again, so did many people.
I don’t doubt for one moment that Richard Clarke spent his career acting in the best interests of the American people. While I have tried, in the course of this review, to show what I perceive as Clarke’s failures of vision, or perhaps perception, I don’t doubt his patriotism. Up to the end, he continued to fight for his vision of America’s role in the world, and he did, over the course of his career, a fine job of representing America. That he didn’t share the president’s vision is not a crime. There is no dishonor in disagreeing with the president, and ultimately, he felt that he could no longer work with the current administration. So he has now retired to private life and given us this book. It makes for an interesting read, in pointing out the many bright spots of both the American government and Richard Clarke as well as their many flaws.