Gene Lyons from Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:
Posted on Wednesday, March 31, 2004
If nothing else, Bill Clinton definitely put the right man in charge of fighting al-Qa’ida. Evidently, the Bush administration once thought so, too. On the morning of 9/11, it was Richard Clarke who ran the White House Situation Room while almost everybody else ran for bomb shelters, and Air Force One flew hither and yon until conditions were safe enough for the president to return to Washington. During the most perilous day in recent American history, Clarke and several colleagues—who’d been war-gaming terrorist scenarios, drawing up disaster response protocols and warning a complacent White House that something terrible was about to happen—essentially became the U.S. government. They handled all communications, grounded civilian aircraft, closed the nation’s borders, shut down its ports and notified the nervous Russians that putting the U. S military on its highest state of alert in 30 years didn’t portend a nuclear attack. This is the guy Dick Cheney says was "out of the loop." He ought to know better than to trifle with Clarke. Intense and abrasive, he’s served four presidents, starting with Ronald Reagan, and has a reputation as a fierce bureaucratic infighter.
After resigning in frustration, Clarke clearly went to school on the Bush team, somewhat as he once studied Osama bin Laden. Understanding that George W. Bush’s main political asset was his carefully crafted image as a decisive leader in the "war on terror," Clarke watched the administration vilify one critic after another.
Everybody who questioned invading Iraq, a secular, oil-rich Arab police state, instead of fighting al-Qa’ida, a stateless band of religious fanatics, got it in the back: former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, Ambassador Joe Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. All had their reputations tarnished, their honesty assailed, even their patriotism questioned. There are no facts in Bush World, only motives.
Knowing that his book, "Against All Enemies," would depict a White House that dismissed terrorism as a Clintonera obsession, reacted passively to warnings of an impending al-Qa’ida strike during the summer of 2001, then did precisely as bin Laden wished by attacking Iraq without finishing the job in Afghanistan, Clarke clearly anticipated the administration’s counterattack.
Over the past two weeks, he’s singlehandedly made the Bush White House look like chumps, anticipating their every move and outmaneuvering the GOP smear machine. Accustomed to bullying adversaries into silence, the White House has made one tactical blunder after another. The result has been a political disaster.
After Clarke’s book depicted Bush on Sept. 12, 2001, urging him to pin 9/11 on Saddam Hussein (the FBI and CIA fingered the hijackers as al-Qa’ida operatives almost immediately), an aide to Condi Rice told "60 Minutes" it never happened. Problem was, Clarke had witnesses. Evidently, the only party to the conversation who’d forgotten it was the president himself. The White House changed its story. Rice now alibis that Bush’s suspicions were justified.
Next, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn, all but charged Clarke with perjury on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Frist asserted that earlier testimony he subsequently admitted not reading differed from what Clarke told the 9/11 Commission last week. Fine, Clarke responded on "Meet the Press." "I would welcome it being declassified," he said, "but not just a little line here or there. Let’s declassify all six hours of my testimony."
He challenged Rice to let her testimony before the 9/11 Commission be made public, too. Also his e-mails and memos to and from her office. Those would have the embarrassing effect of proving that the counter-terrorist policies the Bush White House adopted in September 2001 were virtually identical to strategies he’d developed at then-President Clinton’s urging.
Pressed by Tim Russert to justify portraying Clinton as far more responsive to the terrorist threat than Bush in his book, Clarke was characteristically blunt: "Well, he did something, and President Bush did nothing prior to Sept. 11." " Against All Enemies" pulls no punches. Clark candidly assesses the Monica Lewinsky scandal’s debilitating impact upon Clinton’s ability to fight al-Qa’ida. "Like most of his advisors," he writes, "I was beyond mad that the President had not shown enough discretion or selfcontrol, although... I was angrier, almost incredulous, that the bitterness of Clinton’s enemies knew no bounds, that they intended to hurt not just Clinton but the country by turning the President’s personal problem into a global, public circus for their own political ends." Each time Clinton struck al-Qa’idaor warned against terrorism, Republicans accused him of trying to divert attention from his sexual sins. So, yeah, Clarke has an ax to grind. He clearly believes Republicans put party over country during the Clinton years, and that the Bush White House is doing it again. And so far, he’s getting the best of the argument.
• Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.