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Monday, October 11, 2004

The wrong bombing at the wrong time 

At great personal sacrifice, I'm still working my way through Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke's self-agrandizing history of the war on Islamic jihad. Most of the book is arrestingly tedious, but it has its moments. I have already written on Clarke's apparent sympathy for the theory that al Qaeda had a hand in training Terry Nichols.

I am similarly intrigued by a passage that describes the unwillingness of the Clinton Administration to bomb Afghanistan during 1999, when the al Qaeda camps were pumping out terrorists by the thousands:
On these three occasions and during the presentations of the PolMil Plan, I tried to make the case to the Principals that we should strike at known al Qaeda camps whether or not bin Laden was in them. "I know that you don't want to blow up al Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan trying to get bin Laden only to have the bastard sow up the next day at a press conference saying how feckless we are. So don't say we were trying to get bin Laden; say we were trying to destroy the camps. If we get him, so much the better."

The response I received from all the other members of the Principals usually went along the lines of: "So we spend millions of dollars' worth of cruise missles and bombs blowing up a buck fifty's worth of jungle gyms and mud huts again?" Sometimes I heard, "Look, we are bombing Iraq every week. We may have to bomb Serbia. European, Russian, Islamic press are already calling us the Mad Bomber. You want to bomb a third country?"....

It was ironic that people had once worried whether Bill Clinton would use force and now there was criticism that he was using it too much. In the Islamic world, there was criticism that Clinton was bombing Iraq.... (AAE, p. 201 - 202, bold emphasis added)

Assuming, arguendo, that Clarke's version of events is reasonably accurate -- and it is a little hard to tell how accurate his reconstructed "quotations" are -- there are several fairly obvious points that depend from these passages.

First, the Clinton administration as late as 1999 clearly felt that containment of Saddam was more important than pursuit of al Qaeda. While this revealed priority for bombing Iraq rather than al Qaeda ante-dated September 11, by 1999 "bin Laden's fighters had stitched to their battle flag [five] major victories: Aden, Yemen (1992); Mogadishu, Somalia (1993); Rihadh, Saudi Arabia (1995); Dhahran, Saudi Arabia (1996); [and] Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (1998)..." (Imperial Hubris, Anonymous, pp. 22-23) Al Qaeda was coming after us every which way, and yet the Clinton Administration continued to make containment of Iraq such a priority that Richard Clarke portrays it as having precluded action against al Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan. I point this out not to snark up a storm at either Clinton or Clarke, but to discredit the current argument of the Kerry campaign that the invasion of Iraq was "the wrong war at the wrong time." The "neocons" of the Bush Administration, if they are indeed as influential and monolithic as proposed, are hardly more preoccupied with Iraq than the leading lights of the Clinton administration circa 1999. They just had the political wherewithal to exorcize their preoccupation.

Second, Clarke points out that we were "bombing Iraq every week." Got that? We were manifestly -- by every measure that matters -- in a state of war with Iraq long before the Bush Administration came in to office. This notion that the invasion of March 2003 was a new war has been cooked up for its political value, but it has no basis in reality. We were flying 10,000 sorties a year against Iraq to enforce the no-fly zones, Iraq's air defenses were illegally shooting back, and we were dropping bombs on Iraqi targets "every week" during stretches of that time. We were enforcing sanctions against Iraq that were devestating Iraq's economy, and we repeatedly flew punitive missions against Iraqi positions to retaliate for one or another violation of the 1991 cease fire agreement. The United States and the United Kingdom have been at war with Iraq since the end of the first Gulf War, not just as a legal technicality but as a matter of fact. The invasion of March 2003 was an escalation of that war that greatly compounded our exposure to casualties, but it was not a new war.

Third, Clarke's dialogue reflects the tremendous diplomatic pressure that was already in 1999 building up against the containment of Iraq via the no-fly zones and punitive air strikes. We would not have been able to continue that policy for too many years beyond 2003, and in any case it was already limiting our ability to deal with al Qaeda. If we had made the choice that Clarke (an advisor to the Kerry campaign) believes we should have made, we would have backed away from containment of Iraq even in 1999 to go after al Qaeda. While that policy might have saved American lives lost on September 11, we cannot know that an Iraq free to develop or buy a nuclear weapon would not have one or be on the verge of one by now.

As I have written elsewhere, opponents of the invasion of Iraq need to explain how they would have dealt with Saddam and his revolting progeny once containment collapsed. They have not done so. More remarkably, the current Clarke-Kerry position, influenced as it is by hindsight, is directly contrary to the position of every other Principal of Clinton's Counterterrorism Security Group. At least according to Richard Clarke in 2003.

Bizarrely, I have not seen The New York Times or any other organ of the mainstream media make this very obvious point.

2 Comments:

By Blogger toothdigger, at Tue Oct 12, 05:35:00 PM:

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