Scoping Out the Bushies

Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, by Richard A. Clarke, Free Press, 304 pp. 27.00

The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill, by Ron Suskind, Simon & Schuster, 348 pp., 26.00

When political books come out in an election year it is usually prudent to approach them with a modicum of caution, understanding that they just might come with a political agenda. Interestingly enough, although they contain plenty of information that might cause you to think less highly of George W. Bush, neither of these books is an outright hatchet job – nor do they make the case for the outright stupidity/incompetence/malevolence of the president that the newspaper stories revolving around their publication suggested. Whether the more extravagant short versions were dreamed up by publicists or journalists I would not deign to say. But future historians seeking to assess the Bush presidency and other issues from a bit more of a distance – and perhaps more dispassion than most of us can muster just now – will find both of them useful.

Richard Clarke’s tome, timed to be released the same week he was scheduled to testify before the 9/11 commission, has made the larger splash. Like his actual testimony – as opposed to the 60 Minutes interview and the prepublicity – it is critical enough of Dubya, but more sober and measured than the condensed, almost hysterical condemnation both supporters and critics of the administration had expected.

Besides being a criticism of the Bush administration’s approach to terrorism prior to 9/11, the book also outlines Clarke’s own career, beginning in the State Department in 1979, in the context of the crises and problems the United States faced overseas during that period. I somehow suspect that Richard Clarke was not quite so much at the center of things as he makes it sound in this book, but he was in place and paying attention, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution which got the U.S. “Stumbling into the Islamic World” (a chapter title) until just a few months ago.

Clarke summarizes our involvement with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, beginning with the premise that “Although not an ally of Iraq, the Reagan administration had decided that Saddam Hussein should not be allowed to be defeated by a radical Islamist, anti-American regime in Tehran.” Thus the administration removed Iraq from the list of “terrorism-sponsoring” countries, sent Donald Rumsfeld to establish friendly relations, started sharing intelligence and reestablished full diplomatic relations. Clarke says:

“Although the U.S. never sold arms to Iraq, the Saudis and Egyptians did, including U.S. arms. Some of the bombs that the Saudis had bought as part of overstocking now went to Saddam, in violation of U.S. law. I doubt that the Saudis ever asked Washington’s permission, but I also doubt that anyone in the Reagan administration wanted to be asked.”

Clarke became Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs in 1990, so he had a front-row seat for and some involvement in the first Gulf War, and his comments are mostly useful, especially the observation that the kind of international cooperation the U.S. got in the Bush 41 war would have been most unlikely during the Cold War. He goes on:

“The Cold War had also served to suppress some traditional ethnic and religious rivalries beneath the heavy glacier of the Communist totalitarian state, particularly in the Balkans and Central Asia where there were many Muslims. To the extent that religion was a political force during the Cold War, it was a weak one promoted by the United States as a counterpoint to the anti-religious ideology of the Soviet Union.

“When the Cold War ended, the United States could move massively into the Persian Gulf during a crisis there, ethnic and religious tensions could erupt in the Balkans and Central Asia, and religious fervor could no longer be directed at the Communists. Those feeling disadvantaged by the global system and wishing to blame their lot on foreign forces had only one world-dominant nation to blame for their troubles, one major target to motivate their followers: America.”

To get to the juicy stuff: Clarke, who took on the anti-terrorism portfolio in the White House after Clinton was elected, does make a case that the Clinton administration really was more aware of and serious about terrorism than Bush during the first few months of the administration, and makes it better than I thought it could be made. He says the stuff about Sudan offering bin Laden to the Clintonites on a silver platter, the story so stressed by many Republicans, is bunk. (I don’t know enough to assess either claim). He gives a reasonably good explanation of the rise of al-Qaeda. He was more assertive about wanting to get rid of Saddam than anyone else in the Clinton administration, and almost got his way during the crisis of 1996.

Clarke says the aspirin factory really was an aspirin factory, and that the Clintonites had three relatively decent chances to take bin Laden out with a missile but didn’t do so. He gives the Clintonites more credit for stopping the alleged Millennium bomber who crossed the Canadian border with apparent evil designs on Los Angeles International Airport. Yes, they had an alert on, but it seems to have been one alert border guard who made the difference, not the institutional preparedness.

The exact quote on Condi Rice is this: “As I briefed Rice on al Qaeda, her facial expression gave me the impression that she had never heard the term before.” That’s not inconsistent with the fact that Rice did know a bit about al Qaeda and had even referred to al Qaeda as a threat earlier. But it could also be seen as a putdown.

I’m not convinced that Clarke’s gripes against the Bush administration weren’t more bureaucratic grievance-mongering than genuine concern. Clarke had been operating as a separate shop under the auspices of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, and Rice downgraded the office so Clarke met with subordinates rather than with the sacred “principals” (the actual people who held the title of Secretary of this that or the other), which made him less important. Although he makes a case for more vigilance during the summer of 2001, he doesn’t even try to argue that if all his recommendations had been followed that the 9/11 attack would have been prevented.

The case Clarke makes more convincingly is that the Bush administration was obsessed with Iraq and Saddam Hussein from the very beginning and subordinated more effective possible steps against real terrorists to the goal of getting a war with Iraq underway. Paul Wolfowitz, if Clarke’s account is even reasonably accurate, did downplay the threat from bin Laden and argued that “Well, there are others that do as well, at least as much. Iraqi terrorism for example.” He didn’t back down even when Clarke got the terrorism experts from both the FBI and CIA to agree that Iraq hadn’t sponsored any terrorism directed at the United States since 1993.

His criticism of the Iraq war is pointed: “Far from addressing the popular appeal of the enemy that attacked us, Bush handed that enemy precisely what it wanted and needed, proof that America was at war with Islam, that we were the new Crusaders come to occupy Muslim land.”

“Nothing America could have done would have provided al Qaeda and its new generation of cloned groups a better recruitment device than out unprovoked invasion of an oil-rich Arab country. Nothing else could have so well negated all our other positive acts and so closed Muslim eyes and ears to our subsequent calls for reform in their region. It was as if Usama bin Laden, hidden in some high mountain redoubt, were engaging in long-range mind control of George Bush, chanting ‘invade Iraq, you must invade Iraq.’”

This may be a personal quirk, but I found the book about former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, while informative and useful, somewhat annoying, largely because of a conceit employed by author and former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind. (Nota bene: Wall Street Journal reporters do not necessarily agree with the generally supply-side orientation of the editorial page staff; I know from my own paper that this can be the case, and from some acquaintances at the Journal that it is generally the case there.)

In the course of supplying plenty of information to validate the suspicion that O’Neill and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan were wary from the beginning and worked from the outset to reduce the Bush tax cuts, Suskind constantly portrays them as sheer pragmatists who were guided only by the economic numbers, which they would recite and play back to one another during breakfast meetings the two men (friends for 30 years) held periodically. By contrast, Bush advisers like Larry Lindsey, who advocated the largest tax cuts politically feasible, are invariably called “ideologues,” and while Suskind doesn’t do anything so obvious as putting the word in italics, you can almost hear the sneer whenever the word is used.

Pish and posh. Unless somebody has some kind of theoretical framework, simply immersing oneself in the numbers can’t tell you anything about how the economy is doing. O’Neill is one of those old-fashioned big-business-oriented Republicans (he was chairman of Alcoa after time with the Nixon and Ford administrations and apparently did a terrific job turning it around) who worries most about federal deficits and is routinely afraid that a tax cut will be too big (though he at least isn’t invariably opposed to them like some “responsible” GOPers) and frets that those simplistic right-wingers will have too much influence. Bush had every reason to know this when he appointed him. He didn’t disappoint, committing numerous gaffes, both genuine ones and the ones Washington really deplores: inconvenient commissions of truth.

A few caveats aside, The Price of Loyalty is worth reading for a no-doubt partial picture of how the Bush White House functioned, and especially of the curiously incurious nature of the president himself. O’Neill met one-on-one with Bush about once every eleven days, and many were like the first one, where O’Neill recapitulated his memo on the state of the economy and kept up a monologue for 45 minutes.

“There were a dozen questions that O’Neill had expected Bush to ask. He was ready with the answers. How large did O’Neill consider the surplus, and how real? How might the tax cut be structured? What about reforming Social Security and Medicare, the budget busters. How will we know if the economy has turned?

“Bush didn’t ask anything. He looked at O’Neill, not changing his expression, not letting on that he had any reactions – either positive or negative.”

Maybe it’s a management technique and maybe it’s not knowing what questions to ask. Hard to tell.

The good stuff is in here, however. At the first National Security Council meeting, January 30, ten days after inauguration, the second item on the Mideast agenda was “How Iraq is destabilizing the region, Mr. President,” as O’Neill-Suskind quotes Condoleezza Rice saying, “in what several observers understood was a scripted exchange.” The council pored over a grainy photograph of a factory and pondered whether it was producing chemicals for weapons, though CIA director George Tenet admitted there was “no confirming intelligence” to that effect. After that conversation, “a new direction, having been set from the top, this policy change now guided the proceeding.”

“The opening premise, that Saddam’s regime was destabilizing the region, and the vivid possibility that he owned weapons of mass destruction – a grainy picture, perhaps misleading but visceral – pushed analysis toward logistics: the need for better intelligence, for ways to tighten the net around the regime, for use of the U.S. military to support Iraqi insurgents in a coup.”

Walking back to his office, O’Neill concluded: “Getting Hussein was now the administration’s focus, that much was already clear.”

There’s more, much of it interesting, some probably of interest mainly to wonks. But the picture that emerges of our president is of a person who makes up his mind fairly quickly (sometimes after a period, real or feigned, of listening to differing advice) and afterward finds it almost impossible to change his mind, adjust his views or admit that he might have had incomplete information (as everyone does most of the time) when he decided. That stubbornness might well get the U.S. out of Iraq on June 30 with little future political commitment (though I’d count on military troops for years and perhaps bases for decades). But it got us into the war when there was no good reason, from the perspective of actually defending the United States against an imminent or even a likely threat, to stage the invasion.

Minor annoyances aside, this book is definitely worth reading, not only for the evidence that this administration was obsessed (or choose a less emphatic term if you prefer) from the outset, but for the light it sheds on just how haphazard policy-making is in the actual doing. This is hardly something that has not happened in other administrations, but it seems especially characteristic of Bush 43.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).