[This review was published in the Fall 2004 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 366-372.]  


Book Review


Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror

Richard A. Clarke

Free Press, 2004 


            Subject only to one important qualification, it would be hard to imagine anyone better positioned than Richard A. Clarke to speak authoritatively on questions relating to the United States’ present war with Islamic radicalism.  He began his federal service in highly sensitive areas of national security more than thirty years ago and has served under a succession of presidents in positions that have shown a high level of confidence in his ability and character: Under Reagan, he was Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence; under George H. W. Bush, he was Assistant Secretary of State of Politico-Military Affairs and a member of the National Security Council staff; under Clinton, he was the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism; and he was continued in that role by George W. Bush until 2003, at which time he was given other responsibilities at the highest level.  The confidence reposed in him by presidents of varied political and ideological persuasions has been so substantial and consistent that it would seem incongruous for anyone to attempt to refute what he says in this very candid and articulate book by attacking the man himself.  Nor would it be justifiable to brush aside what he says as though it comes from a figure who has been only on the periphery of policy and events.  He has been in the inner sanctum of several administrations.

            The qualification comes from the fact that Clarke does indeed have certain biases.  Without them, the tone of this book would be much more non-partisan, which is what might be expected from a career civil servant who has served a variety of presidents.  His book is biting in its criticism of George W. Bush and his team for what has gone wrong in American intelligence and national security.  This criticism of Bush wouldn’t be lessened in the absence of Clarke’s cultural predispositions, but he would assign blame much more heavily upon William Clinton than he does.

            He says Clinton was ineffectual in critically important ways.  Because of the intense political opposition Clinton experienced during the Lewinsky and other episodes, Clinton was prevented from replacing the FBI director, Louis Freeh, thereby allowing a poorly organized FBI to remain of little value in the struggle against terrorism.  And because of his strained relationship with the military, Clinton wasn’t able to get the military to conduct commando raids against terrorist targets.  It is noteworthy that the blame for this ineffectuality lies, in Clarke’s perception, not with Clinton but with Clinton’s opponents, whose “bitterness knew no bounds” and who “turned the President’s personal problem into a global, public circus for their own political ends.”

            In effect, Clarke thinks that there could be little good faith in anyone’s thinking that Clinton’s own conduct disgraced the presidency. The opposition to the President’s sexual escapades must have been born out of political opportunism.  Neither does he see any incongruity in a man’s having been elected president (and thus made Commander in Chief) who had been a sworn enemy of the military and a participant in the anti-Vietnam War movement (which, we recall, took its alienation to considerable lengths).  The explanation for Clarke’s perspective may come when he tells us that “I had been an anti-Vietnam War protester in the 1960s.”  In this context, we may infer from Clarke’s attitudes toward Clinton that Clarke shared at least in part the values of the 1960s counterculture, which embraced both “sexual liberation” and animus toward the military.  This produces condonation toward Clinton and anger toward his adversaries.

            The fact that Clarke is not entirely even-handed in assigning blame, however, is important only in the context of the matters just mentioned.  They are by no means inconsequential, which is why they are mentioned here; but what Clarke says about other matters is of such importance that the focus must necessarily be upon those things.  It is with regard to those matters that his strengths - in terms of ability and of the confidence successive presidents have reposed in him - have the most bearing.

            The book gives the reader an “insider’s account” of a large number of episodes during the past quarter-century, and since no review can do justice to those things it is incumbent upon us to recommend that the book be read in its entirety.  For purposes of this review, however, it will suffice to tell certain main points, while necessarily skipping others that are also arguably major:

            1.  The greatest public attention, of course, has been paid to the fact that Clarke is sharply critical of George W. Bush and his administration.  These include what he considers the irrational fixation on Iraq despite evidence pointing to others; the failure to act against al Qaeda before September 11 despite repeated warnings, and against an al Qaeda training camp in Kurdish northern Iraq for as long as 18 months even after September 11; the rush to war while brushing aside allies; the distrust of anything carried over from the Clinton administration or that had a multilateral nature; the search for simple answers, ignoring nuance or subtlety, while engaged in such childishness as crossing off the pictures of terrorists who were caught or killed; the disbanding of the Iraqi army in violation of implicit commitments to its personnel; and the slow and meager commitment to the war in Afghanistan.

            2.  The invasion of Iraq, Clarke argues, was an unnecessary and unjustified tangent that multiplied America’s enemies, deflected the United States from the task of eliminating al Qaeda, and sucked away the money needed for homeland security.  He enumerates still other costs of the invasion when he says, “With our Army stretched to the breaking point, our international credibility at an all-time low, Muslims further radicalized against us, our relations with key Allies damaged, and our soldiers in a shooting gallery, it is… hard to believe that America is safer….”  The invasion, he says, was the product of a fixation on Iraq from the beginning of the George W. Bush administration.  There was no evidence of Iraqi cooperation in a terrorist threat to the United States, and no imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction.

            3.  Little is being done to address the ideological challenge posed by radical Islamism.  Unless that is addressed, the number of terrorists won’t be finite; they will multiply.  Among other things, the United States needs to “force an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.”  “If we could achieve a Middle East peace much of the popular support for al Qaeda and much of the hatred for America would evaporate overnight.”

            4.  A global consensus against Islamic radicalism is imperative, and the United States must work to improve relations with the Islamic mainstream, with the goal of isolating the militants and depriving them of a mass base.  Friendly regimes and forces should be shored up in such places as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and within Iran’s democratic opposition. 

            5.  Vast homeland security vulnerabilities need to be addressed – as they have barely begun to be.  The government needs to prioritize them and do the essential preparation for their defense (actually an immense job).  The vast sum of money needed for this has been drained off by the invasion of Iraq, and “porous borders” continue placing the country at risk.

            6.  Clarke is withering in his criticism of both the FBI and the CIA.  The FBI has operated through 56 field-office “princedoms,” with no modern information technology and insufficient communication within the agency and upward to the top.  For its part, the CIA has held information within itself, not sharing it with others who have needed to know it; has had a long history of analytical failures; has been so risk-aversive, because of earlier criticisms, that it has been unable to act; has suffered from a critical inability to plant spies where needed; and, as a bureaucracy, has been unresponsive to what its own Director and even the President have wanted done.  Although Clarke himself was the “national coordinator for security and counterterrorism,” that position was not an “anti-terrorism czar” with oversight or directive power over the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies.  He joins “many veteran observers of the intelligence community” in recommending the creation of an independent commission similar to the Federal Reserve Board, with a respected board or directors and “an elite staff,” to handle the “intelligence analysis function” that presently resides in the CIA.  This appears, however, to differ from the notion of combining all of the intelligence agencies into a single department.

            The fact that, as this is written, almost three years have passed since September 11 without additional major successful attacks in the United States would seem a prima facie indication that much is in fact being “done right” in the discovery and interdiction of  terrorists.  Clarke would do well to acknowledge this (although, in common with him, almost no one in American public life today does).  Anyone revamping the intelligence services will need much classified information that will allow taking the achievements, as well as the failings, into account.

            7.  Clarke is concerned, as are many others, about the possible destruction of personal liberties that can flow from massive and long-continuing national security efforts.  He endorses the creation of a “Civil Liberties and Security Board” composed of people “who inspire trust and confidence from the vast majority of our citizens.”  He admonishes that it “must be more than just a civilian police complaint committee; it must actively shape the work of the security service to insure that it acts in accordance with… civil rights and civil liberties.”

            Afloat in a bewildering array of problems and imperfect solutions, a reader may wonder whether some overarching lessons are not to be learned.  Are there certain larger generalizations that suggest themselves as we reflect upon all this? 

            Someone who is brutally realistic might well say that the tasks that governments at all levels – local, state and national - are called upon to perform to meet the crisis are far beyond their ability to perform.  Even if those governments were to perform with the best efficiency achievable, there would still be vast gaps and slippage.  Even after reforms are rightly perceived and implemented, so much will remain to be done, and at such expense, that governments at best will offer only an imperfect and porous solution.  Moreover, there is little reason to think that “best efficiency” will ever be achieved. 

            The same brutal realism dictates a realization that there will never be any possibility of creating an assured defense for the countless places at which a large and open society is vulnerable to terrorist attack.  The train-station bombings in Madrid and the panic caused by two snipers acting alone illustrate this well.  Clarke wants the United States to prioritize its vulnerabilities – and indeed that must be done.  But terrorists will still be able to strike in theaters, apartment houses, symphony concerts, at ballgames – wherever people live or gather, or wherever there are utilities or installations serviceable to them.

             If both these insights are true, they underscore how vital it is to remove the motivation for others’ attacking the United States.  In part, Clarke addresses this when he speaks about going to the ideological roots of Islamic radicalism, stresses the need for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and calls for a broad alliance, which most pertinently would include the Islamic peoples.  But it is important to be conscious of the fact that there are unresolved conceptual issues about how to remove the grounds for hatred.  Many argue that “they hate us because we are free and prosperous.”  This suggests that the American people are engaged in a war without end –“perpetual war”-, since there would be no remedy short of giving up freedom and prosperity.   One suspects that the explanation is arrived at without much thought.  For his part, Clarke raises a second issue when, consistently with today’s conventional wisdom in the United States, he argues that “we and our values need to be more appealing to Muslims than al Qaeda is.”  This assumes that “our values” are such that they must (when rightly perceived) be acceptable to peoples of very different cultures, institutions, and history.  The trouble is, as Samuel Huntington has pointed out, that that just isn’t so.  There is much about American society today that is obnoxious to peoples who, for example, take a sacramental view of life.

            In A Republic, Not an Empire, Patrick Buchanan pointed out that for most of the past century the thrust of American policy has been toward a “global meliorism” in which the United States presumes to be the social worker and policeman of the world.  Huntington observed that this is both immoral in its presumptuousness and dangerous.  In the “war against terror,” Americans have focused on striking back against the danger; they haven’t stopped to question whether the danger may not come precisely because of the cultural hubris that underlies the messianic mission America has assigned to itself.  It seems consistent with “human nature” that others wish to be left alone, and take offense at those who presume to order their affairs.  A public discussion of “going to the root causes of the hatred” might do well to include the question of whether American policy prior to 1898 was not the wiser course.  Under that policy, the United States was to be an exemplar of a free society, but was not to intervene around the world even for the best of causes.  Americans may be setting a quixotic course if they try to persuade the entire world that their values are the best.  If they content themselves let other peoples decide that for themselves, Americans may thereby remove much of the reason for fear and resentment.  Clarke doesn’t think in such broad terms, but the paradoxes his book poses invite that sort of reflection. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Dwight D. Murphey