Regarding Richard Clarke

Being out of town and putting the Foreign Affairs essay to bed, I’m late to the Richard Clarke story. Clarke has a new book, Against All Enemies: Inside the White House’s War on Terror–What Really Happened. He also appeared on 60 Minutes. The Bush administration using the big guns — Condoleezza Rice and Richard Cheney ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

Being out of town and putting the Foreign Affairs essay to bed, I'm late to the Richard Clarke story. Clarke has a new book, Against All Enemies: Inside the White House's War on Terror--What Really Happened. He also appeared on 60 Minutes. The Bush administration using the big guns -- Condoleezza Rice and Richard Cheney -- to fire back. Howard Kurtz provides a nice rundown of the state of play. The blogosphere is getting into it as well -- check out Josh Marshall, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, David Adesnik, Chris Lawrence, James Joyner, and David Frum. The basic liberal line is that Clarke's account is a damning indictment of the Bush team's woeful unpreparedness for the war on terror, in part due to an obsessive focus on Iraq. The basic conservative line is that Clarke is just a disgruntled ex-bureaucrat who's hawking a book. So what's my take? 1) Richard Clarke is no Paul O'Neill. Back in January I pointed out the flaws of Paul O'Neill as a messenger on Iraq. Clarke is a different story. This guy managed to work at a high level at the National Security Council for three different administrations. This is highly unusual -- most NSC staffers are either political appointments who leave with a departing administration or career bureaucrats who cycle out of State, DoD, or the intelligence community for a two-year stint. What does it mean that Clarke was able to hang around so long? It means two things. First, he was very capable at his job, in a way that O'Neill wasn't. Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said on 60 Minutes that:

Being out of town and putting the Foreign Affairs essay to bed, I’m late to the Richard Clarke story. Clarke has a new book, Against All Enemies: Inside the White House’s War on Terror–What Really Happened. He also appeared on 60 Minutes. The Bush administration using the big guns — Condoleezza Rice and Richard Cheney — to fire back. Howard Kurtz provides a nice rundown of the state of play. The blogosphere is getting into it as well — check out Josh Marshall, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, David Adesnik, Chris Lawrence, James Joyner, and David Frum. The basic liberal line is that Clarke’s account is a damning indictment of the Bush team’s woeful unpreparedness for the war on terror, in part due to an obsessive focus on Iraq. The basic conservative line is that Clarke is just a disgruntled ex-bureaucrat who’s hawking a book. So what’s my take? 1) Richard Clarke is no Paul O’Neill. Back in January I pointed out the flaws of Paul O’Neill as a messenger on Iraq. Clarke is a different story. This guy managed to work at a high level at the National Security Council for three different administrations. This is highly unusual — most NSC staffers are either political appointments who leave with a departing administration or career bureaucrats who cycle out of State, DoD, or the intelligence community for a two-year stint. What does it mean that Clarke was able to hang around so long? It means two things. First, he was very capable at his job, in a way that O’Neill wasn’t. Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said on 60 Minutes that:

Dick is very dedicated, very knowledgeable about this issue. When the President came into office, one of the decisions we made was to keep Mr. Clarke and his counter-terrorism group intact, bring them into the new administration–a really unprecedented decision, very unusual when there has been a transition that involves a change of party.

Ryan Lizza adds, “this White House has never been confronted with such a credible and nonpartisan critic on the issue of terrorism.” Second, he was extremely skilled in the art of bureaucratic politics. One official who saw Clarke in action — and has no love for this administration — described him to me as “smart, conservative, dedicated, insecure, and vindictive.” I’ve heard stories from both friends and foes of Clarke, and they have one common thread — you did not want this man for an enemy. He knows how to retaliate. [UPDATE: check out Fred Kaplan’s sidebar and main story in Slate about Clarke for examples.] So, when the Bush team decided to jettison Clarke sometime after 9/11, they made an enemy out of Clarke. And they’re paying for that now. So, does Clarke have a personal incentive to stick it to this administration? Absolutely. Does he know what he’s talking about? Absolutely. Can what he says can be ignored? Absolutely not. 2) The administration ain’t helping its own cause. Ryan Lizza has a fine rundown of the different lines of attack levied against Clarke in the 48 hours since this story went live. They range from the plausible (Clarke was obsessed with process and not outcome) to the implausible (Cheney’s implication that Clarke was out of the loop prior to 9/11). They also contradict each other at times. The fact that both Rice and Cheney have addressed this head-on demonstrates, in Kevin Drum’s language, that “the White House is sure acting like they have the potential to do some serious damage.” 3) The administration could help its own cause. Stephen Hayes points out in the Weekly Standard that Clarke does come off as biased in throttling the Bush administration for apparent lassitude while the Clinton administration seems to gets a free pass:

In his own world, Clarke was the hero who warned Bush administration officials about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda ad nauseam. The Bush administration, in Clarke’s world, just didn’t care. In Clarke’s world, eight months of Bush administration counterterrorism policy is more important than eight years of Clinton administration counterterrorism policy.

It’s worth remembering that every new administration needs about six months to work out the foreign policy kinks — flash back to the Clinton team’s firxt six months if you think this is a recent problem. To claim that they were slow to move on Al Qaeda misses the point — unless it was a campaign issue, every new administration is slow to move on every policy dimension. Furthermore, as the Washington Post reports, in the end the administration did get this one right, in the form of a September 10, 2001 deputies meeting that agreed upon a three-part, three-year strategy to eject Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. For all of Clarke’s accusations about the Bush team’s neglect, it’s hard to see how things would have changed if this decision had been made a few months earlier. Post-9/11, for all of Clarke’s claims about intimidation to show Iraq caused 9/11, the policy outcome was that we ejected the Taliban from Afghanistan. Iraq was put on the back burner. I’m someone who’s been less than thrilled with Bush’s management of foreign policy. Some of what Clarke says disturbs me, particularly about homeland security. But for this case, it does look like the system worked. The best thing for this administration is to say in response to Clarke would be: “Yes, if we could turn back time, we’d have given AQ more consideration. But it probably would not have prevented 9/11. And don’t claim that we could solve a problem in eight months that the last team — in which Clarke was the lead on this policy front — couldn’t solve over eight years.” 4) There is a deeper policy split at work. Rational Bush opponents are happy to see Saddam gone but do not see any connection between the war in Iraq and the larger war on terror. Rational Bush supporters will acknowledge that at best there was a loose connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, but that remaking Iraq is a vital part of the war on terror because it will help to remake the Middle East, terrorism’s primary source. David Frum writes:

The huge dividing line in the debate over terror remains just this: Is the United States engaged in a man-hunt – for bin Laden, for Zawahiri, for the surviving alumni of the al Qaeda training camps? – or is it engaged in a war with the ideas that animated those people and with the new generations of killers who will take up the terrorist mission even if the US were to succeed in extirpating every single terrorist now known to be alive and active? Clarke has aligned himself with one side of that debate – and it’s the wrong side.

I’m not completely convinced that Frum is being fair to Clarke, but the comment raises an interesting parallel between current debates over how to wage the war on terror and previous debates over how to contain the Soviet Union. 55 years ago, George Kennan and Paul Nitze had different positions on how to wage a containment policy, with Nitze taking a much more aggressive posture in NSC-68 than Kennan did in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” I’m not sure that it’s ever been decided which position was right. The same will likely be true of current debates.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.