Bush's real mistake came after 9/11, not before

April 04, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

In Against All Enemies, Richard A. Clarke's book that has caused a great commotion in Washington, the author, who held senior intelligence and anti-terrorism posts in the administrations of Presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, makes a persuasive case that the present administration did not have its collective eye on the ball when it came to terrorism threats.

Much has been done by the administration to discredit Clarke since the book came out and he began talking about his assertions to everyone from CBS's 60 minutes, to Larry King and the commission investigating events leading to Sept. 11, 2001.

Last week, the administration, under enormous pressure, agreed to allow Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, to testify under oath to the 9/11 commission, where I expect she will further try to discredit Clarke and his book.

But in all the back and forth trading of accusations since the book's release, an important point seems to have gotten lost. That is not so much whether President Bush and his aides should have anticipated the kind of attacks that al-Qaida launched against American targets in 2001. It is what the focus of security attention was immediately preceding and - more important - immediately after the attacks.

In that respect, Clarke makes a charge about actions by the Bush government, which the government has not wholly denied, though the spin is enough to make anyone giddy. This is the charge that Bush and his chief advisers were obsessed with Iraq. The same observation was made by Paul H. O'Neill, the former Bush administration treasury secretary, in a book by Ron Suskind. In that book, O'Neill referred to a president as "a blind man in a roomful of deaf people."

The administration came to power in January of 2001 already focused on Iraq, to the distraction of practically everything else in the realm of national security and foreign relations. That's what O'Neill had to say. Clarke takes it a step further. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush wanted to know whether Iraq had any responsibility for what had happened. When Clarke told him, "But Mr. President, al-Qaida did this," the president replied, "Look into Iraq, Saddam."

Now, I have some problems with some of the facts in Clarke's book, where they intersect with my own experiences. He writes that 278 Marines were killed in the 1983 truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. The number was 243, and they were not all Marines. He describes an exchange between himself in the State Department operations center and staff of the U.S. embassy under fire in Beirut around the same time, and calls the location of the embassy "Yazde." He even recounts the conversation in which he says "Yazde, Yazde, this is State, over. What is your status?" Trouble is, there is no Yazde. It was Yarze.

Moreover, Clarke comes off as a bit of a vulgar cowboy in his book.

But none of this diminishes the tragic significance of Bush's posture after 9/11. The White House at first denied the conversation between Bush and Clarke about Iraq took place, but later acknowledged it did and that Bush simply wanted to explore all possibilities.

What's the point of all this?

The point is that while Bush did the correct thing by sending a massive force to go after al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan, once they were driven out of Kabul and that part of the battle was over, the administration quickly returned its attention to its fundamental obsession: Iraq. It used phony evidence of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein and an even phonier case of a relationship between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein's regime to launch a war it had in mind from the very beginning. That war and the subsequent occupation of Iraq have cost the American treasury tens upon tens of billions of dollars. It also has cost the lives of hundreds of American service personnel and civilians. Iraq may be better off in some ways, but it is not better off in many others.

And Americans are not better off. Most polls show that Americans do not feel safer today than they did a year ago, or before Sept. 11. I cannot help wondering whether they would feel safer if the vast resources the Bush administration has hurled into the war and occupation in Iraq were being devoted instead to a two-front war against terrorism. The first of these would be to root out the terrorists and their infrastructure outside our borders, with a real commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan. The second would be to improve security in the homeland, where many agencies responsible for it complain they do not have what they need.

President Bush's assertion that if he had known terrorists would use commercial aircraft to launch themselves as missiles against the World Trade Center and the other targets in America in 2001, he would have done something about it, is acceptable. Even Clarke concedes the attacks probably would not have been prevented if Bush had done everything he recommended.

It's what happened afterward that's not acceptable - to divert America's full force and resources from a real war and a just war, to another war that had no real justification.

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