National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 2, 2004

Bush critics point to roads not taken

While Richard Clarke has gained instant fame for what he describes as President George W. Bush’s lack of attention to warnings about terrorism pre-9/11, it is just as interesting to note what Clarke raises as alternatives to the path taken after the attack.

“Imagine an alternative scenario in which a president mobilized the country to deal with the fundamental problems revealed by the terrorist attacks,” he writes in one of the latter chapters of his book, Against All Enemies: America’s War on Terror.

Clarke’s public service career began in 1973 in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and has spanned seven presidencies. In the Reagan administration he was deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence and he was the assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs in the first Bush administration. President Clinton made him the country’s first national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection and counterterrorism, a position he continued in the second Bush administration until his resignation a year ago.

The resumé is important. He is obviously no ideologue or hardened partisan. Nor is he naive about the world and the dangers it harbors early in the 21st century.

So what would he imagine? He lists three key agenda items:

  • A “massive effort to eliminate our vulnerabilities to terrorism at home and strengthen homeland security”;
  • A “concerted effort globally to counter the ideology of al Qaeda and the larger radical Islamic terrorist movement with a partnership to promote the real Islam”;
  • Being active with other countries not only to round up terrorists “but also to strengthen open governments and make it possible politically, economically and socially for them to go after the roots of al Qaeda-like terrorism.”

Instead, in the early hours of Sept. 12, Clarke, having directed the response to the crisis most of 9/11, found Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, talking about Iraq.

At first, he wrote, he was “incredulous” that administration officials would be talking about anything other than 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.”

Whatever one thinks of the Bush administration, it certainly has distinguished itself in one arena: the production of instant history by some of its key players.

What Clarke observes in his recent book comports with the conversation reported by veteran Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward in Bush at War, his 2002 book-length tick-tock on the first 100 days following 9/11. Whatever opinion one might have about Bush’s governing style, it is clear from the book, for which Woodward had remarkable access, that nothing remotely resembling Clarke’s agenda items ever entered the conversation.

The nature of decision-making inside the Bush White House was taken up in The Price of Loyalty by Paul H. O’Neill, Bush’s treasury secretary. O’Neill, who has a long history of public service, criticized the administration for being too secretive.

O’Neill said it was clear from the start that Bush and others around him were looking for the opportunity to invade Iraq. “From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go,” O’Neill told CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl.

Clarke’s book came out soon after the publication of Disarming Iraq by Hans Blix, the former director of the U.N. Inspection Commission in Iraq, who was shoved off the stage by a Bush administration impatient to launch the bombers.

Blix’s book does not have the tone of West Wing intrigue that Clarke can bring to his tale, but this career diplomat has a sobering story to tell about manipulation of truth and disregard for the world community beyond U.S. borders.

In an almost plaintive paragraph, he writes: “With an expression used also by other U.S. spokesmen, Powell declared that the window on diplomacy was closing and that the ‘moment of truth’ was arriving. Armed action, indeed, stands in contrast to diplomacy -- but it does not necessarily stand for truth. … Nor do I find it appropriate to make diplomacy the opposite of truth -- to project it as lies or illusion. Diplomacy will often use language that understates the divergence of positions so as to minimize the gaps that have to be bridged and make reconciliation less difficult, but lying is not a part of diplomacy -- at least not of good diplomacy.”

What is jarring is not merely the content of the criticism but those making it. Clarke, Blix and O’Neill were not whistleblowers or loose cannons. They aren’t the kind of men to sabotage their careers. They were creatures -- especially Clarke and Blix -- of the cultures in which they were nurtured.

They spoke out only after they encountered a world of inflexible ideologues where the answers were in place before the first questions were ever asked.

Their words deserve to be taken seriously.

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 2004

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