Incredible Credibility

Richard Clarke’s decision to step out publicly and write Against All Enemies is more shocking than the revelations within

Jason Vest

Men like Richard Clarke do not, as a rule, write books. Mandarins of the national security establishment who long ago embedded themselves in the bureaucracy, the closest they ever come to anything like public authorship is via the pens of others. They frequently speak to journalists, sometimes on the record as adjuncts of the political master du jour; other times, only on background, perhaps in the service of what they see as sounder policy than the White House does. They consider their import to be their possession of more focused experience and better institutional memory than the strictly politicals they work for; yet by and large they are committed to working within the system, and even in anger rarely consider transgressing the informal boundary that lies just beyond the utterance of an undermining anonymous quote to a major daily newspaper.

For any of these bureaucrats to step in erudite anger from the wings to center stage, then, is rare. For one to do it by name — and in no less than book form — is exceptional. That the author in this case would be Richard Clarke is all the more compelling. I doubt there is a diplomatic or national security reporter who hasn’t occasionally talked with Clarke over the past two decades; even at his most forceful on-the-record or cryptic deep background, I can’t think of a time when Clarke said anything that would have seriously jeopardized his national security chamberlain’s privileges. Nor can I think of a politico/​bureaucratic scrap in which Clarke hasn’t at least held his own (or even relished, as only a street-fighting kid from Dorchester, Massachusetts, can). For a man like Clarke, then, the threshold for publicly turning on any president — by writing a detailed critical indictment of him and his administration — is naturally very, very high.

This is part of what makes Clarke’s Against All Enemies—and his blunt statements to the 9/11 Commission and the press — so satisfying. Thus far, he’s forced the White House to send Condoleezza Rice before the Commission, and has sent some partisan Republicans into such a tizzy they’re demanding the declassification of previous closed-door Clarke testimony, hoping to find discrepancies” between Clarke’s current public and previous classified comments. Yet Clarke’s broadside hasn’t prompted righteous rioting in the streets. So far — if polls are to be believed — he’s nudged both the pro- and anti-Bush numbers up a tad but produced no shift in the current myopic yin and yang that is the American polity.

I can’t say I find this surprising. As H.L. Mencken once noted — in an epigram that perhaps sums up the gap between Americans’ perceptions of the intelligence community and the realities for the best of those who work in it — the public demands certainties … but there are no certainties.” For those who want to believe the worst about the Bush administration, Clarke’s nuanced criticisms of the Clinton administration — and his own sleights of hand about mistakes that seem clear in hindsight — are to be ignored. For those deluded in their goal of realizing an easy region transformed” by exploiting post-9/11 cognitive dissonance — or trying to defend a disengaged pre-9/11 president who easily acceded to a poorly considered endeavor in Mesopotamia — Clarke’s renderings are nothing more than the revisionist self-justifications of a civil servant who dropped the ball. For partisans of one side, any inconsistency or error is proof positive of the self-serving or crypto-liberal; for the other, he’s a folk hero, his role in dubious international activities, like undermining Boutros-Ghali and bombing the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, unacknowledged. In essence, he’s either a demon by commission or a saint by omission.

Which is sad, because it’s precisely Clarke’s status as an unabashedly hawkish but realistic (and sometimes wrong) veteran of the morally ambiguous national security world that gives his account its gravitas. In that realm, things often are bungled in the execution of policies good or bad; its people like Clarke who generally help pick up the pieces and spin the press, even if they don’t fully believe themselves. But when there is the absence of actual policy — or the presence of policy dangerously at odds with reality — it offends the sensibilities of smart, knowledgeable (and, like Clarke, arrogant) civil servants who live and breathe policy they consider paramount to the national interest.

When they run into this unpleasant reality too forcefully, many simply quit and keep to themselves — mere GS-12s know that being publicly critical even once they’ve left is an endeavor fraught with peril. I’m sure Clarke was well aware of what was to follow from his decisions — he’s willing to risk a lot of long-term unpleasantness — because his book reads like it was written by a true civil servant. His motivations might be characterized as conservative in the best sense: He doesn’t like seeing capital — political, financial, human — misspent. And it doesn’t take much space for him to explain, with unadorned clarity, how the current Bush administration has wasted spirit, blood and treasure. (Of 11 chapters, only two are devoted to the W years.) Nor does he require much space to carefully assign responsibility for national security failures intrinsic and systematic.

But the primary utility of Against All Enemies lays not so much in the summations of failure and prescriptions for reform but in a storyline that explains how we came to be where we are today. For those citizens who have spent the post-Cold War days happily ignorant of the generalities and specifics of how the national security components of their government operate, it’s an eminently useful and accessible primer on how strands of intransigence, myopia, and lack of leadership and new ideas have come to make up the rope the current administration has slipped around the neck of sound national security and foreign policy. For those already steeped in those realms, it’s merely more validation of worst-case assumptions.

Not only does Clarke narrate an engaging tour of institutional recalcitrance and pettiness that most rightly assume is intrinsic to bureaucracy (the painfully slow evolution of making al Qaeda a priority; of FBI-CIA cooperation on al Qaeda; of ponying up money from jealously guarded budgets for innovative endeavors), he confirms that the hawks of the current administration are hopelessly stuck in the past. Though his characterization of Rice isn’t quite as piquant as what one former colleague of hers told me several years ago (“She hasn’t had a new idea in her head since 1989”), key is his briefly mentioned realization that neither the new national security adviser nor her deputy had worked on the new post-Cold War security issues,” as is his weary recollection of daily NSC staff meetings filled with detailed discussion about the ABM Treaty and other issues that I thought were vestigial Cold War concerns.” Indeed, if one looked at what most of the national security political appointees were doing for right-wing think tanks during the 90s, they seemed intent on continuing to fight a modified vision of the Cold War, obsessed with ways to both tie up loose ends (i.e., Fidel Castro) or find a new polarization of nation-states status quo.

And even in the wake of the bombings of U.S. embassies and an American warship, al Qaeda’s terrorism was hardly on this crew’s radar. After 9/11, Clarke once again confirms the worst, reporting that the ideologues could see only the tragedy through the retrospective prism of Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Perhaps most disturbing about Clarke’s account is the cool certainty with which ideologues like Paul Wolfowitz discuss their warped view of reality and condescend to the career professionals who have been working al Qaeda and Iraq for years. One wishes one could have seen Clarke’s face when Wolfowitz — back in government just five months after nearly a decade of dwelling in the ivory tower of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) — champions the daffy notions of right-wing conspiracy maven Laurie Mylroie, telling Clarke: You give bin Laden too much credit. He could not do all these things like the 1993 attack on New York, not without a state sponsor.”

Clarke ends his book noting that he and his former colleagues are now teaching graduate students, hoping we can help the next generation of national security managers to understand the dangers of simplistic and unilateral approaches to counter terrorism.” One cannot help but rue the fact that Clarke wasn’t teaching before — perhaps at SAIS, where Wolfowitz and others might have learned a thing or two had they sat in on his class.

Jason Vest, who specializes in national security issues, is a contributing editor at In These Times and is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.
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