Ariel Ahram on Richard Clarke: "No Higher Priority"?

he September 11th Commission has brought to the limelight Richard Clarke, one of a species of mid-level national security operatives who under normal circumstances toil in the obscurity of inside-the-Beltway gossip circles. But these are not normal circumstances. Clarke has used his time on the national stage to begin the inevitable Democratic assault on President Bush’s national security credentials and the American people, faced with a more obstructionist Republican administration than usual, are a receptive audience.

The core of Clarke’s allegations, in his own words, is as follows: “Fighting terrorism in general, and fighting al-Qaeda in particular, were an extraordinarily high priority in the Clinton administration—certainly no higher priority. In the first eight months [the Bush administration] considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue… while it listened to me, either it didn’t believe me that there was an urgent problem or was unprepared to act though there was an urgent problem.” Pre-9/11, President Bush wasted the first eight months of its term obsessed with Iraq, willfully neglectful of the al-Qaeda threat. Despite the warnings of Clarke and others the Bush administration relegated al-Qaeda to a secondary concern, thereby allowing the al-Qaeda sleeper cells operating in the U.S. to enact their plans for hijacking and mass murder.

The veracity of Clarke’s specific claims remains to be established. If, as Clarke claims, the administration was so reflexively anti-Iraq, why did the U.S. prepare for almost two months before launching on Afghanistan one the most complex and effective combined air-ground assaults in history? Why did it take over eighteen months before the invasion of Iraq? Even if the facts Clarke has laid out are true, though, his analysis—that the Clinton administration “had no higher priority”— seems entirely backward, transferring all of Clinton’s faults onto the Bush administration.

The Clinton administration’s record of fighting terrorism was of complacency punctuated by ineffective attempts at legalistic resolutions. Every time that al-Qaeda challenged the U.S., threatened it with death and destruction, the Clinton response was facile at best, non-existent at worst. When Egyptian affiliates of al-Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, killing six and wounding thousands, the administration treated it as an act of criminality, not of war. This insistence on treating al-Qaeda as a criminal organization carried into 1996, when the U.S. declined Sudan’s offer to turn over Usama Bin Laden because the administration feared it did not have enough evidence to indict and convict Bin Laden. In August of that same year, Bin Laden made clear his intentions toward the U.S. by issuing his first declaration of jihad against Americans, but by the time the administration had decided that American civil courts were not an effective deterrent against al-Qaeda, Bin Laden had already found his way to Afghanistan, where he helped the Taliban realize their ultra-reactionary vision of society and gained a secure foothold in which to operate.

In August 1998, Bin Laden’s network simultaneously bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, again striking at sovereign U.S. territory. President Clinton, then embroiled in the Lewinsky fiasco, responded with a serious of guided-missile strikes against camps in Afghanistan and what was falsely presumed to be a chemical weapons plant in Sudan. This pattern of tepid responses to terrorism was repeated ad nauseum: after the attack on U.S. troops in Aden in 1992, the Khobar Tower blast in 1998, or the U.S.S. Cole bombing in 2000, there was nothing but rhetorical saber-rattling by the Clinton administration. If killing Usama bin-Laden was important enough to warrant a missile strike in 1998, why wasn’t it important enough to put American troops in harm’s way?

There is more than enough blame for the catastrophe of September 11th to be allocated among both Republicans and Democrats. The fact that no one has been dismissed by President Bush for their abysmal performance leads to questions about his seriousness in performance in government. Furthermore, in its opening months, the Bush administration may have been just as inattentive to the al-Qaeda as Clinton. But in less than three years, the Bush administration has managed to solve some of the problems, both tactical and strategic, that stymied Clinton for eight. Secretary Rumsfeld’s drive to create a modernized, leaner military lead to the arming of the Predator drones, a weapon which has already been used successfully and could have been used to kill Bin-Laden in the 1990s, when the U.S. regularly dispatched unmanned surveillance sorties over Afghanistan. Recognizing that U.S. civilian courts were not equipped to adjudicate on terrorists who defy both civil and international law, Attorney General Aschroft developed the concept of unlawful combats, a designation that would have enabled the U.S. to take of custody and sequester Bin Laden in 1996, before he had become an anti-American folk-hero.

Most importantly, the Bush administration realized that punitive military measures, up to and including regime-change, were the only way to deal with states like Afghanistan, that harbored and sponsor hostile elements, establishing the precedence that terrorists would be considered agents of the states that gave them succor. While some of the Bush administrations solutions are highly problematic, at least they were proffered, which is more than can be said for President Clinton.

Ariel I. Ahram is a doctoral candidate in the departments of government and Arab studies at Georgetown University

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