All the President’s men:

Asleep on the job


An article by Condoleezza Rice entitled Promoting the National Interest was published in the January/February 2000 issue of the US journal Foreign Affairs.  She wrote as the foreign policy advisor to Republican presidential candidate George W Bush, laying down the foreign policy priorities of a Bush administration.


In those days, Republican criticism of the Clinton administration was that it was given to military interventions around the world in circumstances in which no direct US national interest was at stake.  Thus, the thrust of the Rice article is that US foreign policy should be driven strictly by US national interest, and not by what she dismissively describes as “humanitarian interests” or the interests of the “international community” (p47)


No nation-building

Humanitarian intervention, followed by nation-building, was to be avoided like the plague:


“The president must remember that the military is a special instrument.  It is lethal, and it is meant to be.  It is not a civilian police force.  It is not a political referee.  And it is certainly not designed to build a civilian society.


“Military force is best used to support clear political goals, whether limited, such as expelling Saddam from Kuwait, or comprehensive, such as demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan or Germany during World War II.


“It is one thing to have a limited political goal and to fight decisively for it; it is quite another to apply military force incrementally, hoping to find a solution somewhere along the way.  A president entering these situations must ask whether decisive force is possible and is likely to be effective and must know when and how to get out.  These are difficult criteria to meet, so US intervention in these “humanitarian” crises should be, at best, exceedingly rare.” (p53)


How could a presidency with that outlook become embroiled in Iraq?


Deter Iraq

Rice was in favour of “regime change” in Iraq, but that was not extraordinary – it was the declared policy of the US after Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act in October 1998.  But she did not view Saddam as a threat to the US, with or without “weapons of mass destruction”:


“Saddam Hussein’s regime is isolated, his conventional power has been severely weakened, his people live in poverty and terror, and he has no useful place in international politics.  He is therefore determined to develop WMD.  Nothing will change until Saddam is gone, so the United States must mobilize whatever resources, including support from his opposition, to remove him.” (p60)


Of  “rogue regimes” in general (by which she meant Iraq, North Korea and Iran), she wrote:


“These regimes live on borrowed time, so there need be no sense of panic about them.  Rather, the first line of defense should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence – if they do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration.” (p61)


According to her then, Saddam Hussein could be deterred, even with “weapons of mass destruction”.  (She implies that he hadn’t any at the time of writing – that was true, but did she believe that in early 2000?).


There was therefore a significant policy difference between her and the neo-conservatives – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and others – who became major players in the Bush administration a year later.  In January 1998, they signed a letter to Clinton asserting that Saddam was a threat to US interests and advocating that military action be taken to overthrow him.


No mention of al-Qaeda

The most interesting thing about this article by Rice, which purports to lay down the foreign policy priorities of a Bush administration, is that there is no mention whatsoever of a threat to the US from al-Qaeda or other Islamic groups.  This is surprising since it was written after the first attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993 and after the bombing of US embassies in East Africa in 1998 (but before the attack on the USS Cole, which took place in October 2000).  Nor is there any mention of al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban.


Rice became Bush’s National Security Advisor a year later in January 2001.  Having read this article, it isn’t difficult to believe Richard Clarke, the former Bush counter-terrorism advisor, when he says that he couldn’t get her (or anybody else in the White House) to take seriously the threat from al-Qaeda in January 2001, or in the following months up to 9/11.  That is the main message of his book Against All Enemies and of the evidence he has been giving to the 9/11 commission.


Clarke had served three previous US presidents – Reagan, Bush Sen and Clinton – in the area of counter-terrorism.  In 1998, Clinton appointed him to a newly created position of National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-terrorism and to Cabinet level in the National Security Committee (NSC).  He was asked to stay on by Bush in January 2001, but his post was downgraded so that he no longer sat at Cabinet level in the NSC, which of itself says something about the emphasis the new administration placed on countering al-Qaeda.


Strategic plan

Clarke had carried over from the Clinton administration a strategic plan for dealing with al-Qaeda, and on 24 January 2001 he forwarded it to Rice with a request for an urgent Cabinet-level meeting to discuss it.  The meeting didn’t take place until 4 September 2001, when, according to Clarke, with little amendment his plan became a National Security Directive.   In the meantime, there had been over a hundred meetings of the National Security Committee at Cabinet-level – on Iraq, Star Wars, China – but none on al-Qaeda.


Clarke commented to Lesley Stahl on CBS’s 60 Minutes on 21 March 2004:


“I blame the entire Bush leadership for continuing to work on Cold War issues when they came back in power in 2001. It was as though they were preserved in amber from when they left office eight years earlier. They came back. They wanted to work on the same issues right away: Iraq, Star Wars. Not new issues, the new threats that had developed over the preceding eight years.” (see CBS website here)


(A NSC meeting was held on Clarke’s plan in April, but at a lower level with the deputies in each relevant department present.  As Rumsfeld’s deputy at the Department of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, was at this.  Clarke’s account to 60 Minutes of Wolfowitz’s opening contribution to this meeting betrays an astonishing fixation with Iraq.


Clarke says he began by saying that bin Laden and al-Qaeda had to be dealt with, but Wolfowitz said, “No, no, no. We don’t have to deal with al Qaeda. Why are we talking about that little guy? We have to talk about Iraqi terrorism against the United States.”  It was only with the help of the deputy director of the CIA that Clarke was able to convince him that there hadn’t been any Iraqi terrorism directed against the United States for eight years.)


President asleep

As for the President’s personal leadership on the issue, when Clark was asked on NBC’s Meet the Press on 28 March 2004 to “rate President Bush’s performance on the war on terror prior to September 11th”, he replied (see MSNBC website here):


Well, there wasn’t any personal performance by the president prior to September 11th. And the only thing that I was ever able to detect that he did on the war on terrorism was, after Tenet had been briefing him day after day after day after day after day about an al Qaeda threat, the president said in May, ‘Well, let’s, you know, let’s get a strategy’. That’s the only thing I ever heard that he got involved in personally.


“And when he said that, Dr. Rice called me and said, ‘The president wants a strategy’. And I said, ‘Well, you know the strategy is what I sent you on January 25th, and it’s been stuck in these low- level committees’. And she said, ‘Fine. I’ll deal with that’. Well, she didn’t deal with it until September.


“And interestingly enough, the president never said after that May conversation, ‘Where’s the strategy?’ And again, if you go back to what the president himself says to Bob Woodward, he said, ‘I knew there was a strategy in the works, but I didn’t know how mature the plan was’. He’s saying this on September 11th, he didn’t know where the strategy was. The strategy that he’d asked for in May, he’d never come back and asked where it was.


“You know, basically it wasn’t an urgent issue for them before September 11th.”


That is an extraordinary indictment of President of the US.  He was asleep on the job.


Lacking vigour

Clark does not say that the adoption of his strategic plan in January 2001 would have prevented the attacks in New York and Washington the following September.  It was a long-term strategy, principally concerned with eliminating al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.


But Clarke is also highly critical of the administration’s lack of vigour in reacting to intelligence indications in the late spring and early summer of 2001 that al-Qaeda was planning something big.  Here is his account on Meet the Press, where he contrasts the reaction of the Clinton administration to similar indications in the run up to the millennium in December 1999 (when an attack on Los Angeles airport was foiled):


“On June 21st, I believe it was, [CIA director] George Tenet called me and said, ‘I don’t think we’re getting the message through. These people aren’t acting the way the Clinton people did under similar circumstances’.


“And I suggested to Tenet that he come down and personally brief Condi Rice, that he bring his terrorism team with him. And we sat in the national security adviser’s office. And I’ve used the phrase in the book to describe George Tenet’s warnings as ‘he had his hair on fire’. He was about as excited as I had ever seen him. And he said, ‘Something is going to happen’.


“Now, when he said that in December 1999 to the national security adviser, at the time Sandy Berger, Sandy Berger then held daily meetings throughout December 1999, in the White House situation room, with the FBI director, the Attorney General, the head of the CIA, the head of the Defense Department. And they shook out of their bureaucracies every last piece of information to prevent the attacks. And we did prevent the attacks in December 1999. Dr. Rice chose not to do that.


“Now, in retrospect, we now know that there was information in the FBI that hadn’t bubbled to the top, that two of the hijackers were in the United States. If we had had that kind of process in the summer of 2001 that we had in December 1999, where the national security adviser was every day in the White House asking the FBI director and the Attorney General and the Secretary of Defense, ‘Go back to your building, find out all that you can’, if we had done that in the summer of 2001, maybe the information that was in the FBI would have shaken loose.”


It is unknowable whether action of this kind would have prevented 9/11.  But had the information that was within the FBI got to the top level, it is certainly possible.


Condoleeza Rice has said on many occasions that no one could have predicted the use of an airline hijacking for the kind of attacks that took place on 9/11.  On this, Clarke was scathing, telling Meet the Press:


“Well, actually we did, beginning in 1996. As I describe in the book, at the Atlanta Olympics, the counter-terrorism team from Washington, which I chaired, came down three months before the Atlanta Olympics and checked out the security. And we asked, ‘What happens if someone hijacks a jet and flies it into the stadium?’ And no one had a plan for that. And so we quickly cobbled together a plan for that, using helicopters, no-fly zones, snipers, air-defense radars.


“We did that again for five or six events over the course of the next five years. And I tried to get the authority, and I tried to get the money, to make it a permanent capability to protect the Congress and the White House, but I wasn’t able to do that.”


And to think that the fourth hijacked aircraft was on its way to the White House, when its passengers brought it down.


Reaction to 9/11

Clarke also gives an extraordinary insight into the Bush administration’s reaction to 9/11.  He told 60 Minutes that he expected the administration to focus its military response on bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but instead the talk quickly turned to Iraq.  It is difficult to credit this but apparently Rumsfeld said Iraq should be bombed and, when people objected on the grounds that al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan, he said there weren’t any good targets in Afghanistan and there are lots of good targets in Iraq.  Clarke says:


“I think they wanted to believe that there was a connection [between al-Qaeda and Iraq], but the CIA was sitting there, the FBI was sitting there, I was sitting there saying we’ve looked at this issue for years. For years we’ve looked and there’s just no connection.”

Bush too seemed to want a connection to exist and he ordered Clarke personally to see if there was one.  Clarke wrote a report, in co-operation with the CIA and the FBI, which concluded there was no connection, but it was sent back to him with the message that he had got the wrong answer and he should redo it.  He did, and returned the same answer.


War on Iraq

Asked on Meet the Press if he had spoken out against the war on Iraq, Clarke replied:


“I had spoken out against the notion of bombing Iraq immediately after September 11th. And the Defense Department, the deputy secretary [Wolfowitz] and the secretary [Rumsfeld], talked to my bosses in the White House and indicated how unhappy they were with my attitude on Iraq.


“But when I had spoken out, when I said, ‘Invading Iraq after 9/11 is like invading Mexico after Pearl Harbor’, that didn’t go over well. And I was very quickly sidelined as someone whose opinions were going to be taken into account.”


Asked why he thought the Iraq war had undermined the war on terrorism, he replied:


“Who are we fighting in the war on terrorism? We’re fighting Islamic radicals, and they are drawing people from the youth of the Islamic world into hating us.


“Now, after September 11th, people in the Islamic world said, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we’ve gone too far here. Maybe this Islamic movement, this radical movement has to be suppressed’. And we had a moment, we had a window of opportunity, where we could change the ideology in the Islamic world. Instead, we’ve enflamed the ideology, we’ve played right into their hands, of al Qaeda and others. We’ve done what Osama bin Laden said we would do.


“Ninety percent of the Islamic people in Morocco, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt – allied countries to the United States – 90 percent in polls taken last month hate the United States. It’s very hard when that’s the game, where 90 percent of the Arab people hate us, it’s very hard for us to win the battle of ideas.


“We can arrest them. We can kill them. But as Don Rumsfeld said in the memo that leaked from the Pentagon, I’m afraid that they’re generating more ideological radicals against us than we are arresting them and killing them. They’re producing more faster than we are.”


Who could argue with that?



Labour & Trade Union Review

April 2004