The Magazine

While Clinton Slept

How Osama and Saddam got away with it.

Feb 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 21 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The Threatening Storm
The Case for Invading Iraq
by Kenneth M. Pollack
Random House, 494 pp., $25.95

The Age of Sacred Terror
by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon
Random House, 490 pp., $29.95

THE RECENT REVELATIONS of North Korea's duplicity have given second life to many former Clinton officials. In force, they have hit the airwaves and the op-ed pages--all to chide the Bush administration for taking a provocative, "axis-of-evil" approach to the world's most totalitarian country. Their "realistic" policy, which attempted to bribe Pyongyang into good behavior, was, they argue, more successful since it abated a plutonium-processing crisis in 1994.

Now, in fact, it is a plausible bet that no one in the Clinton administration--with the possible exception of Warren Christopher, who called North Korea's treaty violation "startling"--really ever believed Pyongyang would refrain for that long from developing atomic weapons. So at best, the Clintonites were buying time--ideally, waiting for the day the Pyongyang regime imploded from its Communist contradictions. Time would work, so the hopeful theory went, more against impoverished North Korea than against us.

Avoiding any possibility of war in the meantime was the overriding goal. As Christopher's successor Madeleine Albright recently explained on CNN, there may now be one Orwellian regime with a few nukes; but if the Clinton administration had not "engaged" Pyongyang, there would be dozens.

The North Korea debate is the first serious, concerted attempt by Clinton officials to restore some of the foreign policy prestige they lost after the attacks of September 11. When Osama bin Laden dismissed American power as a paper tiger, he gave pride of place to the Clinton years. Washington's quick retreat from Somalia in 1993 was a disaster for the United States. In 1996, an enormous truck-bomb exploded in Saudi Arabia. When al Qaeda attacked the embassies in Africa in 1998, Clinton responded with a barrage of cruise missiles against rock-huts in Afghanistan and a steady stream of diplomats trying to cajole the Taliban and their Pakistani supporters to do something about the Saudi holy warrior. In 2000, al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in the port of Aden, and the Clinton administration did nothing except deploy a small army of federal officials to Yemen to be certain that al Qaeda was guilty.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Saddam Hussein mocked America by his survival, growing strength, and increasing international support. The Clinton administration seemed never to understand that Saddam played a large part in diminishing the awe with which the United States had been held in the Muslim Middle East--a key component in the rise of bin Ladenism. Bill Clinton's dealings with al Qaeda, Iraq, and North Korea all showed the same debilitating problem: an aversion to the use of American power reinforced by a stultifying fear of risking American lives in combat.

Two recent books try with varying vigor to explain the Clinton administration's handling of terrorism and Iraq. Kenneth Pollack's "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq" and Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon's "The Age of Sacred Terror" are so far the only books by former Clinton officials to tackle head-on perhaps the two most defining and damning foreign policy questions of the Clinton years.

"THE THREATENING STORM" IS, in essence, a legal brief for why now is the time for the United States to invade Iraq. Pollack, a CIA analyst who rose quickly through Langley's ranks to join the Near Eastern affairs staff at the National Security Council in the mid-1990s, became a minor celebrity in Washington for his "rollback-fantasy" article in the January 1999 issue of Foreign Affairs (co-written with Daniel Byman and Gideon Rose). The essay attacked the possibility of using the Iraqi National Congress of Ah-mad Chalabi to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Though still dismissive of the military utility of the Iraqi opposition, Pollack isn't skeptical about a quick American victory over Saddam's armed forces. "The Threatening Storm" is long, perhaps too long, in its exhausting effort to mention all the things the Clinton administration tried, short of war, to bottle up Saddam. But Pollack methodically marshals the evidence for why America's past approach to Iraq--containment through sanctions, attempted coups, military no-fly and no-drive zones, U.N. inspection teams--cannot work. Iraq is too rich, Saddam's regime is too powerful, Iraq's borders are too porous, and its neighbors are too corrupt. America's trade-hungry allies don't care, and the endless attempt at containment is probably more dangerous to America's interests in the region than war would be.