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.

Pollack attacks the long-standing arguments for deterrence made by the French, by many within the Near Eastern Bureau of the State Department, and by more than a few antiwar realpolitik Americans. Their case is quite simple: Saddam Hussein won't egregiously misbehave again, since he knows that we would retaliate with equal or greater force. And even if Saddam got a nuke, it wouldn't give him a decisive advantage, since he would know that we (or the Israelis) would incinerate Baghdad. Saddam is ultimately checkmated, and we should calm down.

But as Pollack points out, the issue is not whether Saddam is deterrable--and Saddam's past actions suggest that he might not be--but whether the United States is. Every Western intelligence service knows that the Iraqi ruler has been trying since 1976 to build a nuclear weapon. If the Israelis hadn't bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981, and if America hadn't responded to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saddam Hussein would now have an atomic weapon. Thus the question is "whether we would be willing to risk sacrificing New York--or Tel Aviv, or the Saudi oil fields--to save Kuwait, Jordan, or Syria." As Pollack remarks, "Saddam's foreign policy history is littered with bizarre decisions, poor judgment, and catastrophic miscalculations. . . . His track record argues that if we allow him to acquire nuclear weapons, we are likely to find ourselves in a new crisis . . . in which we will not be able to predict what he will do, and his personality and his history can only lead us to expect the worst. Leaving Saddam free to acquire nuclear weapons and then hoping that in spite of his track record he can be deterred would be a terrifically dangerous gamble."

In similar terms, Pollack demolishes covert action, the other favorite option of American foreign policy. With some discernible remorse--Pollack appears to have at one time been fond of different covert-action scenarios--he enumerates the failed coups against Saddam, including the CIA-backed coup attempt in 1996 by the Iraqi National Accord. "Today, a covert action program would be tantamount to admitting that the United States is unwilling," Pollack flatly writes, "to make the sacrifices necessary to remove Saddam's regime before it acquires the weaponry to threaten the region and the world."

AND YET, despite this pro-war book, Pollack came to prominence as a critic of Washington's leading Iraq hawks. His 1999 Foreign Affairs essay was a somewhat mean-spirited attack on some of Clinton's most forceful Iraq critics, though it eschewed any harsh words about the president himself. Pollack and his co-writers depicted Clinton's approach to Iraq as being the only practicable policy, since the American people were obviously a debellicized lot, incapable of being persuaded by an American president to go to war. The oppositionist plans for rollback or insurrection were thus defective not just militarily but also politically. Pollack especially ridiculed the current deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who was then the dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, for suggesting before Congress that the key for downing Saddam was a president's mustering "the necessary strength of purpose."

In "The Threatening Storm," Pollack describes himself as a "moderate hawk" on Iraq throughout his government career. It's not always clear exactly what this meant inside the Clinton administration. In the company of such doves as Warren Christopher and national security adviser Anthony Lake, the firing of cruise missiles in the early morning at an empty Iraqi intelligence building could seem like a bold, bellicose act. Certainly Pollack wants to separate himself from the "extreme hawks" (including Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, the Democratic senators Bob Kerrey and Joseph Lieberman, and the editors of this magazine), who believed Saddam had to go and who all were willing to militarily support the opposition through the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act.

Still, at least Pollack and the other "moderate hawks" grasped at some level the point made by the "extremists": The Clinton administration's policy toward Iraq was inadequate. In "The Threatening Storm," Pollack even confesses the same point. "Ultimately," he writes, "the only real difference between the two groups of hawks was that the moderates believed that a policy of determined regime change would be so difficult and costly that senior policy makers (President Clinton in particular) would never agree to it--so they advocated an aggressive form of containment with accompanying efforts toward regime change as the best policy that was politically possible."

But despite his hawkish tendencies, Pollack tries hard to defend his Clintonite colleagues. The boy-scout quality of some of his excuses is almost endearing. For the failure of the Clinton administration's sanctions, Pollack blames "the French, Chinese, Russians, and every other country" that walked away from its commitments. "The United States made a good-faith effort to try to handle the problem of Saddam Hussein and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction through multilateral containment." But we were betrayed by "the perfidy of others."

Is it too much to suggest that the Clinton administration should have known early on--long before 2000, when Pollack admits the administration knew the sanctions regime was Swiss cheese--that sanctions had no chance of keeping Saddam "in his box"? The moral, political, and economic nature of the Middle East, Europe, Russia, and China doomed the effort from the beginning. "Professionals" (Pollack's word) in the CIA, State Department, and NSC perhaps wanted to believe differently. Yet four years after his "rollback-fantasy" essay, the former NSC staffer still gives no hint that he is aware that the principal effect of that Foreign Affairs piece was to aid those in the administration who wanted to do nothing. National security adviser Sandy Berger's decision to bring Pollack back to the NSC soon after the publication of the article undoubtedly had the same stultifying intent, notwithstanding Berger's promises to Pollack that the administration needed him at the NSC to help devise a "realistic regime change policy" since the administration had decided that "the only solution" was to topple Saddam's regime. (When Pollack tells us that Berger regularly reminded him that "we had a responsibility to leave the next administration with a viable Iraq policy, not a mess," are we permitted to giggle?)

Nowhere in "The Threatening Storm" is there an acknowledgment that the "extreme hawks" were right about Iraq much earlier than the "moderates." Pollack's account of his intellectual voyage may be genuine; he may still in 1999 have really believed in the efficacy of "reinvigorated containment." But he now ought to give credit where credit is due. The catastrophe of September 11 didn't have to lead to President Bush's "axis of evil" doctrine and the coming war with Iraq. Many of Pollack's former colleagues still can't make the connection.

Bush did make that connection, at least in part because "extreme hawks" like Paul Wolfowitz had been for years preparing the ground. Bush's ability to "muster the necessary strength of purpose" also helped. Pollack certainly helps advance a more insightful definition of an "extreme hawk": This species includes only those who thought an American invasion of Iraq was essential at least five years before Kenneth Pollack did. This should allow the growing number of liberal converts to the anti-Saddam war cause to sleep more easily at night.

WITH ALL ITS FAULTS, "The Threatening Storm" is enormously illuminating. Try as Ken Pollack may to defend his former colleagues and to diminish their Republican and neoconservative critics, his frustration with an administration that did not see the gravity in the Iraq question--or, worse, saw it but refused to act--permeates the book. Perhaps even more frustrated were Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, the director and senior director of the counterterrorism staff on the National Security Council in 1998 and 1999.

In "The Age of Sacred Terror" Benjamin and Simon don't actually damn President Clinton as comprehensively as Pollack does. Indeed, they offer case-specific defenses of the president that are often compelling. For example, their defense of him against the Wag-the-Dog bombing accusations during the Lewinsky travails is the definitive response to those on the left and right who assumed the worst. Their discussion of sustained Sudanese complicity with Osama bin Laden is also quite persuasive, and leads one to believe that the president was in fact too restrained in targeting the Sudanese in 1998. And they reveal that Clinton had a sincere and bureaucratically active interest in the threat from bioterrorism. (It would be nice to know how much Richard Clarke, the Clinton administration's counterterrorism czar, a man of wide-ranging dark curiosity, propelled that interest.)

But try as Benjamin and Simon do in "Sacred Terror" to defend some senior officials from charges of incompetence--the defense of their immediate boss, Clarke, rings true, while their defense of the dovish Anthony Lake sounds off-key--their often-detailed discussions of various bureaucratic counterterrorist victories inevitably leave one with the impression that the upper reaches of the Clinton administration, especially the president, really didn't want to invest themselves seriously in the counterterrorist issue.

Benjamin and Simon's scathing discussion of negligence at the FBI, and disinterest and operational incompetence at the CIA, also leaves one wondering: If the FBI and CIA directors were running fundamentally dysfunctional institutions, and there was an awareness in the upper reaches of the executive branch that not all was well in these organizations, then who is to blame for allowing these institutions to be so defective?

"Sacred Terror" is well written and thoughtful--its commentary on the evolution of modern Islamic radicalism is a near-masterpiece--and, as in all first-rate books, the clarity of the prose and the story works against sentiment. Benjamin and Simon assign blame as astutely as anyone has, far more cogently than the official bipartisan commission probably ever will. They sum it up well:

In the first World Trade Center bombing and the other conspiracies of the early 1990s, the nation's intelligence and law-enforcement authorities and its political leaders were put on notice that a new brand of terrorism that aimed at mass casualties had arisen. The threat was made more palpable by the embassy bombings, the millennium conspiracies, and the bombing of the Cole, which taken together demonstrated that the United States had a persistent opponent determined to carry out mass-casualty attacks. It is true that between the understanding of that threat and the reality of four planes being used as missiles there is a chasm of incomprehension. But the government failed not because it did not foresee the exact mode of attack. It failed because it did not act against an opponent it knew would like to kill large numbers of Americans, and because it was not alert enough to the signs of an impending operation.

Though Benjamin and Simon don't blame President Clinton for not attacking Afghanistan, the overall effect of "Sacred Terror" is to condemn him. Terrorists blowing up American embassies and a Navy ship are always sufficient causes for the United States to go to war. It is a decent bet that Clinton could have rallied the nation for an attack on bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is a decent bet that if he had, Al Gore would now be president.

Rallying the Democratic party's political class in Washington, of course, would have been an entirely different matter. Even after September 11, a big slice of Washington's Democratic elite still can't stomach the idea of war against Iraq. Indeed, such prominent Democrats as Tom Dashcle, Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi, and Edward Kennedy make Clinton administration officials seem like robust Iraq hawks.

The war on terror, the coming invasion of Iraq, and the imbroglio in North Korea will surely reveal whether the core of the Democratic party can ever understand that, given the enemies we face, a bit more American bellicosity would be a virtue, not a vice. We would all certainly be better off if the Democrats could occasionally outflank the Republican party to the right on national security. For one thing, it would help keep the Bush administration honest on North Korea.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.