Opposition to the Bush policy since Sept. 11, 2001, has taken one of four forms. There are those who continue to believe that there must have been some administration collusion in the planning and timing of the attacks. (I notice that yet another book alleging this has attracted endorsements from about half of The Nation’s editorial board.) There are those who feel that America has antagonized the Muslim world enough already, and that the use of force in Afghanistan and Iraq only makes the enemy more angry. There are those who think that Iraq is “a war too far” (to annex David Rieff’s phrase) and a distraction from the hunt for al-Qaida as well as a dangerous exercise in pre-emption. And there are those who think that the Clinton administration would have done, indeed was doing, a superior job.
Of course this quartet of positions is not mutually exclusive, and elements of each are to be found in one another, but the third and fourth ones have emerged as the safest and most consensual with the reception accorded to Richard Clarke’s book. Among those claiming to be vindicated by his testimony are Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, two senior counterterrorism figures from the Clinton National Security Council, whose not-bad book The Age of Sacred Terror, published in 2002, bears re-reading. Among other things, it contains (on Pages 230-233 and 336-338 of the paperback version) an interesting profile of Richard Clarke, who is depicted as an egotistical pain in the ass who had the merit of getting things right. This seems fair: He has been exposed as wildly wrong in saying that Condoleezza Rice had never even heard of al-Qaida—an allegation that almost amounts to the dread charge of “character assassination”—and his operatic bow to the families of the victims is fine unless you think (as don’t we all?) that one shouldn’t appear to exploit Sept. 11 for partisan purposes. However, when in office he worked to develop the Predator drone, pushed for aid to the Northern Alliance, and leant heavily on the CIA and FBI to stop their wicked practice of hiding information from each other, and one can picture his rage at learning that the hijackers had bought seats using their “terrorism watch list” names.
The Benjamin-Simon book contains a long account of the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and also a stern defense of Clinton’s decision in August 1998 to hit the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan with cruise missiles. What is interesting is the strong Iraqi footprint that is to be found in both episodes. Abdul Rahman Yasin, one of the makers of the bomb that exploded at the World Trade Center, was picked up by the FBI, questioned, and incredibly enough released pending further interrogation as a “cooperative witness.” He went straight to Amman and thence to Baghdad, where he remained under Saddam Hussein’s protection until last year. As Clarke told the Sept. 11 commission last week: “The Iraqi government didn’t cooperate in turning him over and gave him sanctuary, as it did give sanctuary to other terrorists.” That’s putting it mildly, when you recall that Abu Nidal’s organization was a wing of the Baath Party, and that the late Abu Abbas of Klinghoffer fame was traveling on an Iraqi diplomatic passport. But, hold on a moment—doesn’t every smart person know that there’s no connection between Saddam Hussein and the world of terror?
Ah, we meant to say no connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. Well, in that case, how do you explain the conviction, shared by Clarke and Benjamin and Simon, that Iraq was behind Bin Laden’s deadly operation in Sudan? The Age of Sacred Terror justifies the Clinton strike on Khartoum on the grounds that “Iraqi weapons-scientists” were linked to Bin Laden’s factory and that the suggestive chemical EMPTA, detected at the site, was used only by Iraq to make VX nerve gas. At the time, Clarke defended the bombing in almost the same words, telling the press that he was “sure” that “intelligence existed linking bin Laden to Al Shifa’s current and past operators, the Iraqi nerve gas experts and the National Islamic Front in Sudan.” The U.N. arms inspector upon whom all three relied at the time, for corroborating evidence implicating Saddam, was a man who has since become famous: David Kay.
I should say that I am criticized by name in the Benjamin-Simon book for a series of anti-Clinton articles that I wrote at the time of the Al-Shifa raid. Even if the factory was not an aspirin-producing pharmaceutical plant, there seemed no justification for bombing it without warning and without even notifying Congress, let alone the United Nations. Talk about pre-emptive and unilateral. Foul as the Sudanese regime was, it did have diplomatic relations with Washington and it had previously agreed to deport Bin Laden to Afghanistan (which was possibly, in retrospect, a mistake). There should have been a demand for inspections, followed by retaliation in case of noncompliance. Anyway, whatever the forensic truth about the factory may have been, the Clinton administration clearly regarded it as a front for Iraq/al-Qaida cooperation. Benjamin and Simon say that all would have been clear had the Clinton administration been willing to disclose its sources and methods: I’d say that the case for declassifying that stuff would now be an overwhelming one, and I hope to hear them (and Richard Clarke) make it.
The second raid that week, on an al-Qaida base in Afghanistan, missed Bin Laden but did kill some officers of the Pakistani secret police, or Inter-Service Intelligence, who were in his camp. Here, as one ought to have seen more clearly, was another link of state-sponsorship, connecting Pakistan to the Taliban and al-Qaida. One of the crucial reasons for apathy and inaction, in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, was the fact that two of the prime movers in jihad sponsorship, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, were considered official “friends,” not least by the American intelligence “community.” An unnoticed benefit of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq is the extent to which both the Pakistani and Saudi oligarchies have been “turned” and their wings clipped.
To listen to Clarke now, you could almost imagine that the invasion of Afghanistan and eviction of the Taliban—the actual first response of the administration to Sept. 11—had not taken place. To listen to Clarke, also, you would suppose that any Iraqi connection to terrorism was sucked straight out of Rumsfeld’s or Wolfowitz’s thumb. One theory that does collapse completely is that of administration foreknowledge—the Bush people were evidently in no shape to take any quick advantage of the events and seemingly hadn’t bothered to plant even one Iraqi among the mainly Saudi hijackers. But in my experience, dud theories die only to be replaced by new and even dumber ones. The current reigning favorite is that fighting al-Qaida in Iraq is a distraction from the fight against al-Qaida.