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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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.