The Magazine

Who Lost Osama?

From the April 12 / April 19, 2004 issue: Richard Clarke is far tougher on the Clinton failures than advertised.

Apr 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 30 • By DANIEL C. TWINING
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Against All Enemies

Inside America's War on Terror

by Richard Clarke

Free Press, 304 pp., $27

"THIS IS THE STORY, from my perspective, of how al Qaeda developed and attacked the United States on September 11," Richard Clarke begins Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, his new book that has been widely ballyhooed as the bomb that will destroy President Bush's reelection campaign.

In fact, only in his preface and the book's final sixty-five pages does Clarke's partisanship boil over into the invective, vitriol, and spite that have transformed this career national-security hawk into the anti-Bush Democrats' American Idol. The rest of the book, Clarke's unwitting indictment of the Clinton administration's terrorism policy, ought to make the whole of the nation vote for four more years of Bush.

After a warm-up chapter that offers a readable account of the first twenty-four hours of the White House's response to the attacks, a nonpartisan chapter on how America transformed its strategic posture in the Middle East during the 1980s, and a sensible chapter on the first Gulf War, the subsequent one hundred and fifty pages of Against All Enemies chronicle the formation and rise of al Qaeda--and the American government's failure to prevent it from metastasizing into the existential threat it had become by the time Clinton left office.

Clarke explains al Qaeda's rise, from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing through subsequent foiled and successful terrorist attacks in Mogadishu in 1993, the Philippines in 1995, Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, Africa in 1998, and Yemen in 2000, as well as the foiled Millennium Plot--all of which is required reading for those who want to understand what the government knew about al Qaeda on President Clinton's watch (a lot) and what it did about it (considerably less than it should have).

Although critical of the failure to retaliate against Iran for the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, Clarke credits President Reagan with transforming the United States' strategic posture in the Middle East. When Reagan took office, the Central Command, now arguably our most important command, was a backwater; the United States had no bases in the Persian Gulf; and events in Iran had left the United States vulnerable to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and another wave of devastating oil shocks.

Clarke admiringly recalls how Reagan moved the United States closer to Israel, instituting joint exercises and extensive military-to-military cooperation. Reagan also built new military relationships with Egypt, Oman, and Bahrain, and established the headquarters of the Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain to patrol the Persian Gulf. According to Clarke, Reagan "checkmated the Iranians by strengthening Saddam Hussein." Reagan's support of the Afghan opposition brought about the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan, a significant strategic defeat. Reagan's policies not only transformed America's position in the wider Middle East but enabled the military response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

CLARKE'S REVIEW of the diplomacy preceding the first Gulf War is also interesting. Traveling with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to Riyadh, Clarke was at the pivotal meeting in which the king of Saudi Arabia agreed to the stationing of American forces in his country, even as his intelligence chief, Prince Turki, was secretly asking Osama bin Laden to assemble Afghan volunteers to defend the kingdom from Saddam's army. Clarke recalls the breathless pace at which American officials flew from one capital to another around the Gulf. He dissects the famous judgment to stop General Barry McCaffrey's forces from finishing off Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard as they retreated from Kuwait, and the flawed American decision "to stand by and let the Republican Guard mass murder the Shia and Kurds."

The failure of Bush's father to end Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq segued into the first test of the Clinton administration's determination to act against terrorism. Clarke helped plan the initial use of force in the Clinton administration, to retaliate against Iraq for its plot to assassinate George H.W. Bush in Kuwait. The strike was an early indicator of the schizophrenia that characterized Clinton's national security policy: a laudable willingness to use military force strangely matched with a fierce determination that it cause the least possible pain to our enemies. In Clarke's rendition, Secretary of State Warren Christopher "argued strongly on legal grounds that the list [of targets] be limited to one facility, the Iraqi intelligence headquarters. He also wanted it hit on Saturday night, to minimize casualties. Christopher won."