Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Review Against All Enemies, Inside America’s War on Terror

Clarke, Richard, Against All Enemies, Inside America’s War on Terror, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Free Press, 2004


Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, Inside America’s War on Terror was an early criticism of the Bush White House and its invasion of Iraq. Clarke worked for four administrations dealing with terrorism under Clinton and the second Bush. Clarke’s argument was that after 9/11 rather than focusing upon Al Qaeda President Bush decided to go after Saddam Hussein making the situation worse. The problem is that half the book is about Clarke’s entire time in government covering many topics that have nothing to do with his point.


Clarke begins with 9/11. That day he was at the center of the response within the White House. The next day Clarke thought the administration would be focusing upon countering the next attack but instead there was talk about Iraq. Clarke felt like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz were taking advantage of the attack to push Iraq. Wolfowitz for instance said that a state had to be behind 9/11 and that was Iraq. Rumsfeld was talking about broadening the response by attacking Saddam. Most disturbing for Clarke was later that day the president asked him to look into an Iraq-9/11 connection. Clarke said it was Al Qaeda but told his subordinates to do a review. That was delivered on September 13 and found no Iraqi role. Bush would decide to invade Afghanistan first, but Clarke blamed him for letting bin Laden and the Taliban leadership escape and then quickly shifting resources to the impending war with Iraq. Clarke felt like Bush made a huge strategic error after this tragedy. Al Qaeda was the enemy of America. Instead of doing everything possible to destroy that group the president decided Iraq was more important which played into the hands of bin Laden and other Islamists. By occupying a Muslim country it fed into Al Qaeda’s message that the U.S. was at war with Islam. Clarke believed the White House was completely ignorant of the negative impact Iraq had in this struggle while claiming that it was the most important step in the war on terror.


This obsession with Iraq was apparent from the start of the Bush administration. In April 2001 Clarke presented his plan to counter Al Qaeda before the deputies of the National Security Council. Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz said the U.S. should be focused upon Iraq instead claiming that it was behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, a conspiracy theory he got from Laurie Mylroie. The CIA and the State Department backed Clarke, but Wolfowitz wouldn’t budge. On September 4 the main National Security Council heard Clarke’s ideas about Al Qaeda backed by the CIA and State. This time Defense Secretary Rumsfeld brought up Iraq. Clarke felt so frustrated that he asked to be transferred to cyber security. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were two of the earliest advocates for confronting Iraq. Neither showed any interest in Al Qaeda. It was the president who made the ultimate decision but he ended up siding with the Pentagon and took the same view that Iraq was ultimately more important than Al Qaeda. While Bush would constantly push the CIA for information about whether any Al Qaeda members were arrested or killed he put the government’s resources and main attention upon Iraq which hurt Afghanistan and the war on terror which offended Clarke.


That all seems like a sound argument but this is only a part of the book. The middle is about Clarke’s long career in government. He starts with how the U.S. gained military bases in the Persian Gulf, made a strategic alliance with Israel, and backed the mujahadeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan under President Reagan. This would eventually give rise to bin Laden and Al Qaeda. He goes through how the U.S. first started hearing about that group after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and then how it became a main focus of the Clinton administration after things like the African embassy bombings. The problem is Clarke includes everything he was involved in. Thus there’s a long section on the Atlanta Olympics bombing, confronting Iran and its support of Hezbollah, and more. Here’s where Clarke completely loses his point. If he had just included the U.S. military move into the Middle East and its growing confrontation with Al Qaeda that would have been useful background to how Clinton and then Bush decided to deal with the threat. Instead the author couldn’t seem to stick to the subject. As a result, the book starts reading like a detailed resume.


Despite its flaws Against All Enemies provides a firsthand account of how President Bush and the Pentagon believed Iraq was a more pressing matter than Al Qaeda at the start of the administration. The issue with the book is that Clarke couldn’t keep his eye on the prize and dealt with his entire government career instead of just those experiences which were relevant to his argument. That means you can get some important details from Clarke’s work, but its weighed down by long and largely superfluous history.


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