Friday, March 26, 2004

# Posted 2:04 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NO MORE MR. NICE GUY: Is there any hope of getting past partisan antagonism and coming up with a fair evaluation of what Richard Clarke has to say about the Bush administration? No, not really. At least for now. I think a big part of the problem is that the newspapers have been portraying Clarke as an immaculate hero and the President as a black-hatted villain.

Exhibit A consists of the WaPo's two front-page stories on Clarke from Thursday morning. The first is by Dan Eggen & Walter Pincus, the second by Dana Milbank. Milbank's news analysis essay casts Clark as an selfless public servant whose eloquence enables him to silence those Republicans desperate to demonstrate that he is a hypocrite or a liar. The Eggen & Pincus article presents Clarke as a prophetic whistleblower and does nothing to question his credibility.

Now, if Clarke were so persuasive, why did Charles Krauthammer, Rich Lowry, and Romesh Ratnesar (of Time) have such an easy time coming up with compromising material?

One reason is that the Bush administration has been remarkably forthcoming with once-classified material that helps discredit Clarke. Above all, the contents of Clarke's August 2002 background briefing for the press suggest that he only became so critical of the President after leaving office. As Rich Lowry sums up,
Clarke said, "I think the overall point is, there was no plan on al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration." His book seems to confirm that, but nowhere puts it so starkly.

In his 2002 briefing, Clarke said that the Bush administration decided in "mid-January" 2001 to continue with existing Clinton policy while deciding whether or not to pursue more aggressive ideas that had been rejected throughout the Clinton administration. Nowhere does this appear in his book.

He said in 2002 that the Bush administration had decided in principle in the spring of 2001 "to increase CIA resources . . . for covert action, five-fold, to go after al Qaeda." Nowhere is this mentioned in his book.

In 2002, Clarke emphasized that the Bush team "changed the strategy from one of rollback with al Qaeda over the course [of] five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of al Qaeda." This is mentioned in his book, but - amazingly - as an afterthought.

Clarke in 2002 knocked down the idea that there was irrational animus toward the Clinton team on the part of the Bushies that blinded them to the necessity of strong counterterrorism. He offered himself, kept on as a holdover from the Clinton administration, as a refutation: "That doesn't sound like animus against the previous team to me." In his book, he suggests there was such an irrational animus.

Finally, in his 2002 briefing, Clarke made it clear that there was no "appreciable" change in U.S. terror policy from October 1998 until the Bush team began to reevaluate policy in the spring of 2001 and get more aggressive. His book implausibly argues the opposite, that Clinton was on the ball and Bush dropped it.
Kevin Drum has already admitted the contents of the briefing are pretty damning, although he is reserving judgment until he finishes reading Clarke's book. However, even if the Bush administration had held back the August 2002 transcript, there are plenty of other public statements Clarke made that come across as pretty damning. As Charles Krauthammer recounts, PBS asked Clarke in March 2002 whether
...failing to blow up the [Al Qaeda] camps and take out the Afghan sanctuary was a "pretty basic mistake."

Clarke's answer is unbelievable: "Well, I'm not prepared to call it a mistake. It was a judgment made by people who had to take into account a lot of other issues. . . . There was the Middle East peace process going on. There was the war in Yugoslavia going on. People above my rank had to judge what could be done in the counterterrorism world at a time when they were also pursuing other national goals."

This is significant for two reasons. First, if the Clarke of 2002 was telling the truth, then the Clarke of this week -- the one who told the Sept. 11 commission under oath that "fighting terrorism, in general, and fighting al Qaeda, in particular, were an extraordinarily high priority in the Clinton administration -- certainly [there was] no higher priority" -- is a liar.
Now if all this material was out there, why did the WaPo ignore it completely? (As Greg Djerejian points out, the editors of the NYT haven't exactly been critical of Clarke either.)

Now, at the same time that it has been lionizing Clarke, it has been tearing apart the administration. In a front page story today, Mike Allen describes how the White House has launched an unprecedented effort at character assassination. Allen devotes two short paragraphs to the August 2002 briefing and gives only the slightest hint of how much it does to undermine Clarke's reputation. If your only source of news were the WaPo, you'd come away from Allen's article thinking that the only motive behind the administration's attack on Clarke was a partisan desire to cover up evidence of its own incompetence.

Now, this isn't to say that the White House has done a terribly good job of character assassination. In fact, the rampant contradictions embedded in its effort to discredit Clarke deserve a major share of the blame for the bad press it has gotten on this issue. Consider the following (from the WaPo, of course):
Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage contradicted Rice's claim that the White House had a strategy before 9/11 for military operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban; the CIA contradicted Rice's earlier assertion that Bush had requested a CIA briefing in the summer of 2001 because of elevated terrorist threats; and Rice's assertion this week that Bush told her on Sept. 16, 2001, that "Iraq is to the side" appeared to be contradicted by an order signed by Bush on Sept. 17 directing the Pentagon to begin planning military options for an invasion of Iraq.

Rice, in turn, has contradicted Vice President Cheney's assertion that Clarke was "out of the loop" and his intimation that Clarke had been demoted. Rice has also given various conflicting accounts. She criticized Clarke for being the architect of failed Clinton administration policies, but also said she retained Clarke so the Bush administration could continue to pursue Clinton's terrorism policies.

National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack defended many of Rice's assertions, saying that she has been more consistent than Clarke.
If that's not enough to convince you that Condi Rice is evil, just take a look at the photo published alongside the WaPo article. Moreover, adding insult to injury, Matt Yglesias says that Condi isn't even qualified to be National Security Adviser. Maybe that's why the WaPo has begun to report that Condi will be gone by the end of the year. (Condi may not be qualified, but I don't agree with Matt's argument about why.)

Now, getting back to the point, does all this mean that we shouldn't listen to anything Clarke has to say? I don't know. On Tuesday, I wrote that
I didn't mean to suggest that what Clarke said was false or that it doesn't cast doubt on the competence of the Bush administration...

[And] I don't put much stock in the administration's efforts to discredit Clarke or cover its exposed posterior
I'm going to stick by the latter half of that statement since the administration's response was utterly incompetent. They're lucky that the conservative punditocracy saved their (ahem) posterior. But as for the first half, even if Clarke didn't tell any outright lies, his accusations seem to have been profoundly misleading.

Looking back at my original post on the subject, I seem to have been far more focused on what Clarke said about Bush's response to September 11th rather than his lack of preparation for it. In that respect, I think his comments do reflect poorly on the administration. But that's beside the point because I missed the real story: that Clarke was rewriting the history of what happened before September 11th.
(0) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments: Post a Comment