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Each week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

March 29, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 221




Tom Fox We should thank Richard Clarke

By Tom Fox, NCR publisher

After initial denials the White House acknowledged Sunday that on the day after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush asked top counterterrorism adviser, Richard A. Clarke, to find out whether Iraq was involved.

The confirmation was made by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in an interview on CBS's "60 Minutes."

This confirmation is part of a story within a story. It is important because it validates a key charge make by Clarke both in Congressional testimony and in his new book, Against All Enemies.

The larger story has to do with why the Bush administration failed to respond to information of threats posed by al Qaeda once it took office. The story within that story is why the fixation on Iraq from the get go.

Other Takes by Tom Fox
Jan. 23, 2004 In resistance there is hope
Jan. 22, 2004 Common ground: the earth beneath their feet
Jan. 21, 2004 Reflections close to my heart
Jan. 20, 2004 Remember the tales from last year
Jan. 19, 2004 The last years of Martin Luther King
Nov. 20, 2003(un)Holy Matrimony
Nov. 19, 2003Talking about celibacy
Nov. 18, 2003 Why bishops won't talk about celibacy
Oct. 10, 2003 Why Catholics are jittery
Sept. 26, 2003 Priest of the poor
Sept. 25, 2003 A revolution deferred: sex and the church Part II
Evidence mounts daily that Bush and his team have from the earliest days of the administration responded inadequately to the threats posed to the United States by bin Laden and the al Qaeda network because they have worn ideological blinders. From years back, they have been focused on waging war against Iraq.

There are at least three theories as to why the Bush team has been fixated on Iraq. The first has a son finishing the work of his father. The second has to do with a mindset, carved by decades of the Cold War, that sees terrorism as state sponsored. The third, drawn up by the "neocons" in the post Cold War era, has American military force, when necessary, asserting American will worldwide in the name of democracy.

I buy into all three but see the third as dominant among the Bush ideologues. History will eventually sort these out. The more immediate task, with the health of our country in the balance, is to get a better handle on how the Bush Team sees the world and how it comes to decisions in the midst of crises. On these matters, Richard Clarke's new book, Against All Enemies, is helpful.

The book is solid, an insider's view. Most of it focuses on government responses and lack of responses before President George W. Bush took office. It faults a weakened Clinton administration for not adequately pressing its anti-terrorist agenda. But it's the book's devastating critique of the Bush administration that has captured the attention of the nation.

According to the book, from the moment the Bush team took office and decided to retain Clarke in his post as the counterterrorism czar, he tried to persuade them to take al Qaeda as seriously as had Bill Clinton. For months, however, he was denied the opportunity even to make his case to Bush. In the process the reader encounters key officials who gave the impression that they had never heard of al Qaeda; who focused incessantly on Iraq; and who advocated long-discredited conspiracy theories about Saddam's involvement in previous attacks on the United States.

Clarke, argues that Bush, to the detriment of the security of the nation, consistently ignored information that could plausible have curtailed the attacks against the World Trade Center. Al Qaeda simply did not fit into the Bush ideologically-driven state-sponsored terrorist view of the world.

As September 11, 2001 grew closer and Clarke's repeated warnings that Bin Landen was planning a major attack against the U.S. were ignored inside the White House, Against All Enemies takes on the feel of a slow motion nightmare.

Will someone please listen? Will someone wake up?

Following the attacks, with much evidence pointing to al Qaeda, the White House at first ignored the information, preferring to pin the attacks on Saddam Hussein.

Clarke recalls meeting Bush the day after the World Trade Center attacks and hearing Bush say: "See if Saddam did this. See if he's linked in any way." To which Clarke shot back: "But, Mr President, al-Qaeda did this."

Nevertheless, Bush ordered Clarke to look again for "any shred" of Iraq evidence.

Clarke maintains the Bush ideologues used the attacks for political purposes, to buttress their preconceived case against the Iraqi dictator.

Clarke's measured analysis, growing out of years as the nation's top anti-terrorist coordinator, ends up with a frightening judgment: the United States is less secure today than it was at the time the planes flew into the twin towers. The Bush administration has made it so.

Here's Clarke's recollection of the hours that immediately followed 9/11.

I expected to go back to a round of meetings examining what the next attacks could be, what our vulnerabilities were, what we could do about them in the short term. Instead, I walked into a series of discussions about Iraq. At first I was incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting al Qaeda. Then I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq. Since the beginning of the administration, indeed well before, they had been pressing for a war with Iraq. My friends in the Pentagon had been telling me that the word was we would be invading Iraq sometime in 2002.

Clarke's central argument emerges: US foreign policy under Bush II has been hijacked by hawkish ideologues.

Referring to the Bush administration's first deputy-secretary-level meeting on terrorism, in April 2001, which Clarke had fought hard to secure, he recounts:

When I had urged action on al Qaeda then, (Paul) Wolfowitz had harked back to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, saying al Qaeda could not have done that alone and must have had help from Iraq. The focus on al Qaeda was wrong, he had said in April, we must go after Iraqi-sponsored terrorism. He had rejected my assertion and the CIA's that there had been no Iraqi-sponsored terrorism against the United States since 1993. Now this line of thinking was coming back.

By the afternoon on Wednesday, Secretary Rumsfeld was talking about broadening the objectives of our response and 'getting Iraq.' Secretary Powell pushed back, urging a focus on al Qaeda. Relieved to have some support, I thanked Colin Powell and his deputy, Rich Armitage. 'I thought I was missing something here,' I vented. 'Having been attacked by al Qaeda, for us now to go bombing Iraq in response would be like our invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor.

Against All Enemies is a critically important book that bolsters the arguments of Bush critics and countless anti-war activists. No doubt it will sharpen foreign policy debates in the months ahead, allowing the nation to penetrate deeper into the minds of a small group of leaders who have taken policy into uncharted and dangerous waters.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at

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