I’m sure many of you saw the Wallace-Clinton interview last week. My initial impression was that Clinton, though justified in his response, might have went a little off the deep end. But he kept saying that all you had to do was read Richard Clarke’s book, and all the things that he did to fight terrorism would become very clear. So I did.

And you know, I now understand why he got worked up.

Against all Enemies is a very interesting read. I had to get past Clarke’s frequent first person use, and he certainly seems to go out of his way to show how he was at the center of every event that took place in the 90s, but to give him credit, he kind of was at least when it came to terrorism. And that does give him the unique ability to comment on how the threat of terrorism was recognized and fought throughout the 90s.

For those of you who don’t know it already, Clarke was Bill Clinton’s ‘terrorism czar’ but also served in various capacities, usually as a terrorism expert, in the administrations of Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. He was early to recognize the threat of terrorism, and in trying to convince various White Houses and government entities that this threat was real and needed significant attention.

He points out that terrorist acts against Americans first started to appear in the administrations of Reagan and Bush I in Beirut and Saudi Arabia. He also notes that neither Reagan nor Bush I took real steps to retaliate against the perpetrators (Hizbollah and others – no al Qaeda existed yet) or seemed to even identify this as an important problem.

But he does point out that Bush I exacerbated the terrorism problem by invading Iraq. He does not fault Bush for the invasion; indeed he faults him for not destroying the Republican Guard when he had the chance. As a result Bush had to leave troops in Saudi Arabia for years, exacerbating tensions with some Islamist elements who thought that this was sacrilege. (He also has harsh words for him about his failure to support the Shia uprising after the Gulf War, but that’s a different story.)

He then moves to the Clinton years. It’s evident that Clarke admires Clinton, and he paints a picture of a concerned and surprisingly effective leader. He first notes that, as Clinton repeated to Wallace, Clinton inherited the peacekeeping mission in Somalia from Bush I. And he confirms that it was indeed the same neocons who are in the White House now who were urging him to withdraw troops from Somalia right after Black Hawk Down. Clinton delayed for 6 months to allow a peaceful transition to UN troops. He also gives Clinton great credit for resisting the temptation to bomb the hell out of Mogadishu when it would have been very easy to do.

Ironically, this restraint left the nascent al Qaeda with the impression that America was weak, despite the fact that Clinton actually showed considerable strength in resisting the temptation to do something violent or withdraw right away. On the other hand, Clarke points out that it was an unwinnable situation – if Clinton had bombed Mogadishu it would have been grist for the terrorist mill, and if he withdrew right away, they would have said he was driven out.

At the time, no one had the least idea that al Qaeda existed, and it was only many years later that there were some hints that they could have been peripherally involved in the incident.

Clarke then points out that Clinton recognized the threat of terrorism quite early, and responded. He found money to organize some kind of emergency response from various levels of government in case of attacks; he first started stockpiling antibiotics and vaccines for possible attacks in the U.S. (Remember the anthrax scare? Guess where the antibiotics came from?) ; he retaliated for terrorist acts against Americans (‘wag the dog’? – my eye!). He appointed Clarke as his terrorism czar and supported him with both money and political capital.

Perhaps most impressive, it was Clinton’s government, with Clarke leading, that stopped terrorist attacks. Clarke points out that terrorist threats at the turn of the millennium were real, but none of them materialized. Why? Because Clinton gave Clarke the support for necessary security, investigation, etc. Remember the guy who was arrested with explosives he planned to use to blow up the LA airport?

The other key thing to remember is that Clinton prevented al Qaeda from getting a foothold in Europe. Members of what was to become al Qaeda flooded into Bosnia during the crisis there and tried to radicalize the Bosnian Muslims. Because Clinton dealt with the conflict there (despite the urgings of the neocons not to get involved), they were unable to gain a foothold, and their removal from the area was a key part of the Dayton accord. This was another major success.

The major point is that Clarke found a sympathetic ear in Clinton, and a will to focus on this problem. Unfortunately, the rest of the intelligence agencies were not so helpful. He generally has little good to say of the FBI’s constant foot-dragging and lack of recognition of a real threat. He also verifies that after the Cole bombing, the CIA and FBI did indeed refuse to confirm that it was an al Qaeda operation despite the fact there were no other suspects. They finally confirmed it only after Bush took office.

And then of course, we know what happened and it’s pretty much like Clinton said. Because Clinton thought terrorism was an important issue, Bush and colleagues assumed that it wasn’t. Clarke was demoted from a quasi-cabinet level position to what amounted to an under-secretary and could get the ear of no senior government officials. The administration stalled and waffled about anti-terrorism policy at the sub-secretary level and managed to get the ‘principals’ together once before 9/11. And of course they did nothing to retaliate for the Cole even though they knew who did it. And yes, Clinton and Clarke did leave them with a detailed plan to deal with terrorism both domestic and foreign, despite Condi Rice’s recent assertions to the contrary.

And after the attack? Well we all know about that too. It must have been Saddam Hussein right? Unfortunately, there was no link between him and any al Qaeda terrorists. Not for want of trying of course; Saddam probably would have been more than happy to support al Qaeda but the Clinton administration did an effective job of dissuading him from doing so, as he did Iran as well. Unfortunately, the new administration was still convinced that Iraq had to be involved and wasted valuable time and effort trying to prove it. And when they did (well, at least in their own minds) they invaded.

In the last chapter, Clarke lambastes Bush for playing into al Qaeda’s hands in every way, shape, and form. Bush invaded an ‘Islamic’ country for no reason, exacerbating anti-American sentiment, and as predicted terrorists flocked there. He gave Afghanistan scant attention, and the Taliban are emphatically not destroyed and remain a threat. (Clarke points out that the Bush administration delayed for months before sending any significant number of ground troops, initially relying on special operations forces and the Northern Alliance). North Korea and Iran, much more significant threats and nations with real ties to terrorism (in the case of Iran) were given short shrift, and now they are both actively trying to develop nuclear weapons and resisting outside pressure not to do so. The Palestine-Israel conflict was ignored, and the Arab world is now convinced that we are in league with Israel and want only to destroy Islam.

This is all a very long way of saying that Clinton had every right to get pissed. When this pissant little conservative newsman asked the question: ‘Why didn’t you do more about al Qaeda?’ it reflected either a complete lack of any knowledge of recent history, or even worse, a complete and wanton disregard for the truth in order to score political points. I’m glad Clinton called him on it.

I was no Clinton fan when he was in office. I thought he was ‘Slick Willie’ all the way through. But I’m changing my mind. Clinton was (and is) clearly a smart, knowledgeable, informed man. He was able to listen to those who disagreed with him, weigh evidence, and make informed judgements, all skills the current president clearly lacks. I really wish he could have kept his pants on, but this is a minor flaw in a man who clearly governed effectively.

So Bill, go ahead and get mad! Tell it like it is! Don’t let these ‘conservative’ bozos get away with distorting the truth. You’re right: you did try, you did get close, you did do far more than Bush did, and you were more effective in fighting terrorism then than he is now.

And he’s also right when he says, ‘go read the book’. You’ll learn a lot.