The former White House counter-terrorism advisor, Richard A. Clarke, has scored a coup by forcing official Washington to buy a book. Clarke's newly released tome, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, unleashed a media firestorm because it accuses the Bush administration of manipulating the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
It was lost on no one that Clarke's most damning allegation—that the administration sought, deceitfully, to implicate the former Iraqi regime in the Al Qaeda hijackings—came on the first anniversary of the outbreak of the war in Iraq. Nor could anyone avoid linking the book's publication to the current presidential election campaign, even though Clarke is not regarded as a liberal or a backer of US President George W. Bush's Democratic rival, John Kerry.
What is someone who has not read Clarke's book to make of his claims, at least those that have made their way into public conversation in recent days?
It is difficult to fault Clarke for arguing that administration officials, especially Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, sought to use Sept. 11 to advance an agenda of war against Iraq. This was amply documented in Bob Woodward's book Bush at War. However, what Wolfowitz's critics have ignored is that his effort to implicate Iraq was the cornerstone of an ambitious strategy for how to respond to the Al Qaeda attacks that, in his mind, addressed the fundamentals of the terrorism problem.
For Wolfowitz, the threat posed to the United States came less from Al Qaeda per se than from the environments allowing such groups to form. As the Bush administration gauged the impact of Sept. 11, policymakers split into two camps: those who argued that the US must respond narrowly against Al Qaeda and its supporters, namely the Taleban in Afghanistan; and those who sought a broader mandate to reshape Middle Eastern countries regarded as terrorist breeding grounds.
Wolfowitz, his boss Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney were the main figures in the latter group. Though they have been faulted for advancing the apparently false claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), they were actually on more solid ground in terms of administration policy than many care to remember. Indeed, the administration had three props in its approach to Iraq, not just one: WMD, but also the Ba'ath Party's connections to terrorism and the former Iraqi regime's crimes against its own citizens.
Many have too swiftly rejected the WMD charge on the basis of what US weapons inspector David Kay stated several weeks ago. In fact, Kay added a critical caveat, namely that while Saddam may not have possessed functioning WMD, he probably acted as elusively as he did in the run-up to war because he sought to hide the fact that Iraq was "in clear material violation of (UN Security Council Resolution) 1441" and "maintained (weapons) programs and activities, (showing the Iraqis) certainly had the intentions at a point to resume their programs."
The Iraqi regime's connections to Al Qaeda remain, at best, obscure, but in its wider interpretation of the threat to the US, the administration could make the case that Saddam Hussein had at one time or another hosted terrorist groups such as those led by Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas and others. Was the case a strong one? No, but as an indictment in a mostly preordained trial it also was not entirely fabricated.
The last pillar, however, was the most interesting, and went to the heart of the strategy adopted by Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and, ultimately, Bush. By intervening in the relationship between the brutish Iraqi regime and its long-suffering subjects, the US adopted a policy of enforced democratization. As far as the Bush administration was concerned, a democratic Iraq at the heart of the Arab world could become a liberal beacon in the region, prompting demands for openness and real reform inside neighboring states. Ridiculous you say? The Syrian regime, faced in the past two weeks with protests by individuals seeking greater freedom and a revolt by disgruntled Kurds, would surely disagree.
This is where Clarke's allegations, and those of critics who see a disconnect between Al Qaeda and Iraq, are misleading. Iraq always was essential to the anti-terrorism battle precisely because victory there was regarded as necessary to transform societies from where terrorists, spawned by suffocating regimes, had emerged. One can disagree with the practicability of such a strategy, but it is difficult to fault its logic.
The weak link in the argument was, and remains, Palestine. If the American objective is Arab liberalism, then presumably the Palestinians deserve a share. However, insisting on this should not detract from the validity of the larger message, namely that the future of the Arab world, and its long-term stability, lies in a pluralistic Iraq.
Whatever the dissembling from officials seeking justification for an invasion of Iraq—and there is no doubt the effort was improperly managed thanks, in part, to harshly contending agendas within the Bush administration—the diagnosis was a correct one. Sept. 11 went beyond Al Qaeda and reflected a more fundamental problem in the Arab world: the existence of regimes allowing or directing resentment toward the outside, particularly against the West, to cover up for their own asphyxiation of liberties.
Lest some find this argument—that autocracy breeds terrorism—deceptive, it is worth recalling it was one that America's most vociferous critics floated after Sept. 11. But that was before they realized that such an opinion placed them in the same boat as Bush administration hawks. Once they did, they preferred to backtrack, on the assumption that anti-Americanism is always more rewarding than consistency.