Why is Richard Clarke Seething?

Fact & Fiction

Ms. Klinghoffer is senior associate scholar at the Political Science department at Rutgers University, Camden, and the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East. She is also an HNN blogger. Click here for her blog.

Yes, I know the conventional wisdom: He is a disgruntled employee. After years of dealing directly with the president, he was forced to make his case to mere deputies. He did not get the job he wanted. He wants to promote his book. All that may be true but the man I watched testify to the 9/11 commission seemed much more enraged by the Bush administration's decision to get rid of Saddam than by 9/11. Nor is he alone in his rage. Determined to understand, I bought the book and discovered that I was right. 9/11 did not come as a surprise to Clarke . In fact, he had predicted it. A few months earlier he had told the meeting of the deputies: “Al Qaeda plans major acts of terrorism against the U.S. It plans to overthrow Islamic governments and set up a radical multinational Caliphate, and then go to war with non-Muslim states. They have published all of this and sometimes, as with Hitler in Mein Kampf, you have to believe that these people will actually do what they say they will do.” If, indeed, fighting Al Qaeda was the Clinton administration's top priority, how was it that Al Qaeda's existence was so little known that Clarke felt he could not issue a credible public warning? “What would it say?” he writes, “A terrorist group you have never heard of may be planning to do something somewhere?”

If, as he told Paul Wolfowitz, Bin Laden, like Hitler before him, told the U.S. what he plans to do and it would be a big mistake to ignore it, why didn't Clarke demand that Clinton make Al Qaeda and Bin Laden a household name? After all, publicity would have provided both him and the president with the political muscle necessary to bring to heel uncooperative bureaucratic warlords. Was it possible that the relative silence on the subject was part of the anti-terrorist strategy? Moreover, Washington is not a place where secrets are well kept. Yet for months, the Clinton administration held daily meetings of the principles without a word leaking out. Was the media cooperating with the administration in keeping Al Qaeda off the front pages? After all, since the fall of the Baath regime numerous editors and reporters admitted that they avoided writing stories about Saddam's atrocities in order to maintain their access to the regime or to protect their people from retaliation.

Similarly, in his book Who killed Daniel Pearl? Bernard-Henri Levi admits that the presence of Jihadists was “an open secret” for the intellectuals, humanists and journalists who covered the Balkan wars and that it was a secret they took care to keep from the public. Why? Because they urged Western intervention and if the public knew the truth it would object to enhancing the Jihadists power and agenda. Indeed, I suspect that Clarke along with the rest of the Clinton administration similarly believed that their anti-terrorist strategy would not withstand public scrutiny.

What was that strategy? “Swatting flies, ” i.e., snatching and prosecuting terrorists on which the 9/11 commission seems to focus, was just a minor part of it. That was the part which needed “actionable intelligence.” But neither the administration nor Clarke thought it important enough to be permitted to endanger the other three more important planks. Much more important was the protection, strengthening and promotion of the “moderate Arab governments” or, more accurately, repressive Sunni autocracies. For following the Iranian revolution, successive U.S. administrations were dedicated to preventing the emergence of another Shia theocratic state. Since Sunni minority governments were common in the region, all talk of democracy had to be avoided, and the subject of human rights shunned. Since the rise of Sunni Islamism threatened “our bastards” it was best to downplay its importance. The best way to do so was to focus attention on the Balkans and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the aspirations of Mulah Omar, Alija Izetbegovic and Yassir Arafat dovetailed with those of Sunni Islamists, the Clinton administration hoped it would drain the anti-American poison from the movement and discredit Osama Bin Laden's contention that the U.S. is an enemy of Muslims. That is the famous “root cause” theory and that is the reason numerous Middle East experts expressed their surprise that the Islamists did not give them any credit for their dedication to the Middle East peace process or for going to bat for them in Bosnia and Kosovo. However, for every expert who admitted that 9/11 proved the theory false, at least two, including Clarke, stuck to their guns. Clarke like most of the virulent opponents of the war on Iraq remained loyal to the original theory and if he is seething, it is because the Bush administration refuses to join him.

Clarke writes: “Rather than seeking to work with the majority in the Islamic world to mold Muslim opinion against the radicals' values, we did exactly what Al Qaeda said we would do. We invaded and occupied an oil-rich country that posed no threat to us, while paying scant time and attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.” In other words, Bush's war on terror should have been conducted in the manner Clinton 's was in 1996. He should have ignored Saddam Hussein's genocidal policies in Iraq and his support for Palestinian terrorism the way Clinton ignored Turabi's genocidial policies in Sudan and his support for KLA terrorism in Bosnia . Moreover, if Sharon, like Milosevic, fails to go along, Tel Aviv should be bombed to submission and a Daytonlike agreement should be forged. NATO forces would provide security and Arafat, like Izetbegovic, would sincerely promise to evict the terrorists in his midst and given stern warnings if he failed to do so. That indeed was Arafat's not completely absurd dream.

Clarke writes that Al Qaeda's plan was to find places like the Philippines and the former Yugoslavia where minority Muslim were battling majority Christians and rally Jihadists to their aid. After a successful Jihad, these new territories were expected to serve as breeding grounds for more Jihadists. Eventually, the network of old and new Islamic states would make up the great new Caliphate. Clarke believes that the way to fight Islamism is by taking the side of weaker Muslim populations against stronger non-Muslim governments as the Clinton administration did in Bosnia . The fact that the Muslim leader Ilya Izetbegovic was the author of the “Islamic Declaration” who cooperated with Jihadist cadres was as irrelevant as the fact that those soldiers have committed heinous acts of atrocities in the Dusina, Vitez, Busovaca and Miletici.

“What we saw unfold in Bosnia,” writes Clarke, “was a guidebook to the Bin Laden network, though we didn't recognize it as such at the time. Beginning in 1992, Arabs who had been former Afghan mujahedeen began to arrive. With them came the arrangers, the money men, logisticians, and “charities.” They arranged front companies and banking networks. As they had done in Afghanistan, the Arabs created their own brigade, allegedly part of the Bosnian army but operating on its own. The muj, as they came to be known, were fierce fighters against the better-armed Serbs. They engaged in ghastly torture, murder, and mutilation that seemed excessive even by Balkan standards.” They were called muj because the CIA did not know about the existence of Al Qaeda until the spring of 1996 when Jamal al-Fadl, an Al Qaeda defector told the CIA about the Bin Laden network. Prior to that date, the CIA dismissed repeated inquiries not only by Clarke but also by Sandy Berger to look into that network. Given this CIA history, Clarke 's complaints about Bush administration questions concerning the Bin Laden – Iraqi connection seem spurious. It was clearly a gang which refused to see.

One thing is clear. The Clinton administration was supposedly “too sophisticated” to engage in a “with us or against us” policy. The Muslims were the aggrieved side in Bosnia and Clinton came to their aid. The fact that he handed a victory and a new European base to the Jihadists (both Al Qaeda and Iranian) was an unfortunate unintended consequence was better kept as hidden as possible from the public at large. Luckily, the opinion makers agreed. Clarke admits that diplomacy “did not entirely work.” In 1998 French troops raided “muj” facilities in Bosnia and arrested eleven, including two Iranian diplomats. The facility was filled with explosives, arms, and plans for terrorist attacks on U.S. and other Western troops. Clarke's brave anti-terrorist units were kept busy intercepting shipments of C-4 plastic explosives en route to an Egyptian Islamic Jihad terrorist cell operating in Germany. They seemed intended “for a round of attacks on U.S. military installations in Germany.” Another cell was plotting to blow up the American embassy in Tirana. Izetbegovic and his successors ignored American threats that they would terminate first military than all aid. “Al Qaeda cells in Bosnia were identified by the U.S. and raided by Bosnian police as late as 2002.”

What are Clarke's lessons from this experience: “Despite Izetbegovic's lapses, Bosnia was largely a failure for Al Qaeda. They invested men and money, but were unable to establish a major, permanent base, unsuccessful and turning another country into part of the Caliphate.” I suspect Bin Laden would disagree for Clarke fails to mention the temporary presence of NATO troops in Bosnia may have something to do with that “failure.” Moreover, Clarke does go on to admit that Al Qaeda “did, however, gain further experience and borrow deeper into Western Europe.” The lesson Clarkes draws from the experience is that the U.S. should have intervened earlier (prior to 1992?). In other word, it should continue the same strategy only more of it.

That strategy also called on avoiding any steps which would frustrate the Islamists. Muslims were permitted to kill non Muslims without having to worry about any interference by the “international community.” The same international community which was justifiably enraged by Serbian atrocities could not care less about the Sudanese “campaign to eradicate the blacks who lived in southern Sudan . Numerous international relief organizations had provided evidence of such outrages as bombing feeding stations.” Rwandan Tutsis were not the only ones murdered with impunity, Christian and Animist Sudanese were too. Moreover, according to Clarke, they were murdered by Hasan al Turabi, a “soul mate” of Osama bin Laden who shared his “vision of a worldwide struggle to establish a pure Caliphate.

Any reasonable anti-Islamist anti-terrorist agenda should have included serious American aid to the anti-Turabi Sudanese and precluded aid to the Bosnian Muslims until they evicted the Jihadists. An American electorate aware of the Islamist agenda would have demanded such “unsophisticated” policies. Clarke prefers a sophisticated one according to which the enemy of my enemy is my enemy and Clinton followed this strategy meticulously. He helped the Islamists evict the Serbs from most of Bosnia and Kosovo and did his best to help Arafat evict most Jews from the Palestinian territories. On the other hand, he did nothing to stop Turabi from evicting and killing the Sudanese Christians and animists or the Taliban from enslaving their women. Moreover, he kept news of the growing global cancer well hidden from the public. The Islamists should not have asked for anything more. Unfortunately for Clarke, they grew impatient and went for a knockout punch and the Bush administration, instead of diffusing public anger by directing it at the failure of the American security forces as the Clinton administration had done and the 9/11 commission, had the gall to change the grand strategy. George W. Bush revealed the existence of the Islamist threat and embarked on a serious war against them. He did not just bomb the Taliban and the Baath but evicted then thereby taking away their territory. Putting aside fears of Shia rule, he embarked on a campaign for democracy. If the Palestinians wish to have a state, they will have to become worthy of one. Some in the Arab world are beginning to dare to cheer. Libya and Sudan watched and learned though both have a long way to go. Others like Muslim dictators, their friends and the designers of the failed Clinton policies such as Richard Clarke, are understandably seething.

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William Livingston - 4/6/2004

IMHO Judith Klinghoffer's assessment requires a better argument than John Fisher's bald "A Classic Straw-Man Argument" to be refuted. For one thing, it was known at the time the Clntionistas were supporting the Boisnian Muslems against both the Christian Orthodox Serbs & the Christian Catholic Croats. Hedonist & Libertine Clinton was an open enemy of Christian values & of Christians, save surprisingly, he rose to the defense of East Timor, using the U.N. as his mechanism. As much as I despise Chicken Willie, it was pleasing he strove to assist East Timor, regardless for whatever covert reasons.

Josh S Narins - 4/5/2004

I think I'd avoid mentioning that many powerful and vocal Christians in this country believe that we are
1. A Christian nation
2. Christian doctrine should trump, and dicate, US law
3. failing because of the lack of True Christians(tm)(all rights reserved) as leaders and citizens

Translating A Izetbegovic's 1970's Islamic views sound far saner than loonies like P Robertson, who ran for President because God moved a storm away from the Carolina coast.

I saw him say that on his 700 Club show, which also explains how giving money to P Robertson will eventually result in you getting riches, no matter how little you have now.

P Robertson spent a lot of his money backing C Taylor of Liberia, a close associate of members of al-Qaeda.

When P Robertson and J Falwell were blaming Feminists, Gays and other non-Christian types (see Titus and II Timothy for anti-feminism in the New Testament) for 9/11, I wonder if they were actually thinking of their "DIRECT" FINANCIAL CONNECTIONS TO AL-QAEDA.

Remember how P Robertson was railing when we started messing around in Liberia in 2002?

If I were a Christianist, I would avoid all such talk.

Antonio Calabria - 4/2/2004

I guess Clarke is not the only one "seething" or foaming....

William Marina - 3/31/2004

In paragraph 4, line 12, perhaps you mean "Shia" rather than "Sunni" Islamism?

Michael Green - 3/30/2004

If I were a supporter of the Bush administration, I, too, would try to slough off blame for our terrorist troubles onto Bill Clinton. I would try to smear Richard Clarke. I would ignore the unassailable fact that no evidence has demonstrated any connection between Saddam Hussein and the terrorism with which we are supposed to be at war. I would remind everyone that Saddam was a dictator of great evil, which he certainly was. I wouldn't point out that more than 500 American soldiers have died because the present administration lied to the American people at a time when it claimed to be worthy of our trust in facing the gravest threat since Adolf Hitler. I wouldn't note that Richard Clarke is neither the first nor the only person from the government to point out the disengagement of George W. Bush, the singlemindedness of Dick Cheney, the ignorance of Condi Rice, and the arrogant inanity of Donald Rumsfeld. If all of that were true of me, I would be doing something far worse than any historian accused of plagiarism or lying about or inventing research. I would be doing, in fact, what the above article did.

John P Fisher - 3/30/2004

With all due deference to Prof. Klinghoffer, I think this argument is an example of the classic Straw-Man tactic. She sets up the Clinton Administration for not mounting a war against Al Queda and not publicizing the threat, though she admits their high level of activity around the issue and the Bush Administration's lack of attention. Hanging this argument on the frame of Clarke's book is doubly unfair.

The facts are:
There is some loose confederation of religious zealots, ex-mujahadeen, disenchanted Saudis, and the like, which we call Al Queda. They have mounted or supported some terrorist acts over the last decade or so, with 9/11 as their greatest success.
Rooting out the Taliban has had little or no preventive success against Al Queda or other Islamic terrorism, though Afghanistan may be temporarily better off.
American chest-pounding has unintended negative consequences abroad.
The Clinton Administration was engaged with the terrorist problem at the highest level of priority. NATO members and our other close allies were closely consulted. Efforts were made to assassinate Bin Laden. Outside government, several books were published about Al Queda, but little noticed before 9/11.
The incoming Bush Administration wouldn't even take a meeting to discuss the issue. They were disengaged, and uninterested before 9/11.
The Clinton Administration was deeply involved in peacemaking between Isreal and the Palestinians. Like all before, they failed, but they did come within sight of a settlement.
The incoming Bush Administration was uninterested in peace negotiations or in assuaging Arab public opinion. The half-hearted Roadmap, may not have been any worse than previous doomed attempts, but it was an afterthought, and unconnected with a wider plan of diplomacy for the Arab world.
The Bush Administration has repeatedly claimed that invading Iraq was connected with anti-terrorism, even though it is patently untrue.
Israeli relations with Egypt and the Palestinians are getting worse. The Israeli situation remains a very emotional issue in the Arab world, where unscrupulous leaders use it to transfer criticism from their own dictatorial policy.

After 9/11 Bush declared war on Al Queda and Bin Laden, which was the single worst move he could make, in my opinion. He elevated Bin Laden and his rag-tag bunch to the level of actual adversaries, instead of dangerous criminals, and fueled anti-American sentiment across the Arab world. The failure to maintain International support for the response to 9/11, was not only short-sighted, it was an arrogant, foolish blunder. The failure to listen to the outgoing Administration's 'actionable intelligence' was nearly treasonable in its stupidity.

The proper response to Islamic terrorism may be attack, it may be patience, or embargoes. My guess is that it will be a combination including negotiation, dirty tricks, PR campaigns, and peacemaking. An administration that fails to listen to multiple sources, fails to study the history of the region, fails to take advantage of Allies, blindly relies on Isreal, and fails to take a subtle approach, will certainly fail to provide the maximum suppression of terrorism.

In my view the Clinton Administration was engaged and active on many fronts in the effort to combat Islamic terrorism and the underlying issues in the Arab world. They were severely hampered by partisan attacks at home, and by the very intractability of the situation. The Bush Administration was disengaged and unaware before 9/11, but afterwards they have used terrorism as a shibboleth to justify seizure of Iraq, they have created a vast and bloated bureaucracy of dubious value, and spent billions of dollars and many lives on a war for control of oil.

Which approach will be more successful? Is there any evidence that the Bush approach is working?