|New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning
journalist who covers politics and
It's one thing to intensely dislike George W. Bush. It's
another thing entirely to want to defeat him so bad, you are willing
to adopt his own bring-'em-on worldview. But that is exactly
the position in which many progressives and the "liberal media" find
The precipitating event may have been the Richard Clarke affair.
The former Bush counterterrorism official, of course, was and is a
hawk. And the essence of his much-discussed critique is that the
administration did not initiate enough proactive measures before
9/11 to knock out Al Qaeda. This position has been taken up
gleefully by many anti-Bush partisans, from columnists and talk show
hosts to activist organizations and elected officials.
But have these Bush critics stepped back and thought out the
implications and consequences of such a stand? Or are they just
looking for anything to use against Bush, even if it violates some
of their most cherished tenets?
Because that's just what the Clarke position does. How should the
United States have dealt with Al Qaeda before 9/11? Launch a
pre-emptive invasion of Afghanistan? Despite a series of attacks by
Al Qaeda—in Kenya, Saudia Arabia, Yemen, etc.—it would have been
difficult, absent the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, to
win world support for large-scale military action. Small,
coordinated, surgical efforts, perhaps—like those Clinton had
already tried (bombing a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant tied to
Osama) without notable success. But a truly massive assault would
only have stirred up the current global maelstrom far earlier. And
it wouldn't necessarily have done anything to prevent the 9/11
The truth is, it would have been awfully difficult for us to stop
Al Qaeda no matter what the administration did. For one thing, Al
Qaeda is not a sovereign state, but an organization. For another,
the more it is attacked, the more it morphs from entity to state of
mind. And states of mind are notoriously difficult to subdue.
Liberals would be well-advised not to get into bed with hawks
when it is unnecessary, not only because such politically motivated
alliances are disingenuous, but because they would be a strategic
mistake. The current geopolitical situation is incredibly delicate
and complicated, so it is natural for people to seek some stance—any
stance—that seems decisive and offers promise of a payoff in
The only aspect of Richard Clarke's critique that can and should
be embraced is his documented claim that the Bush administration had
long sought excuses to wage war with Iraq. That's Clarke's gift.
Stressing the malfeasance, deception and stupidity underpinning the
Iraq initiative is consistent with the principles of multilateralism
and of thoughtful, balanced, justifiable global action. What's not
okay is appearing to support massive pre-emptive action that most
likely will not secure the peace.
Liberals would be well-advised not to get
into bed with hawks when it is unnecessary
It is the Iraq situation—and only the Iraq situation—that can
form the basis of an effective campaign critique. It is
comprehensible, neat and indisputable, and it has the potential to
resonate with everyone in this country except for the incurably
dense and the willfully blind. You don't have to be a liberal to
recoil when the deaths of U.S. service personnel in Iraq top 600.
If progressives want to draw public attention to inadequacies in
the administration's war on terror, they might supplement the
critique of the Iraq distraction by highlighting the limitations of
administration policy since 9/11.
Plenty of fodder presents itself. Just the other day, The New
York Times reported how the White House had tried to slip
through Congress—in the metaphorical dead of night—a veto of
requests from the IRS for more auditors to track the money flow to
Al Qaeda. This act was not only transparently a bad idea, it was
also an extreme example of short-term stupidity in service of
political goals—slashing vital spending to fund inadvisable tax cuts
for the rich. On a more macro level, the administration should be
savaged for failing to reign in Ariel Sharon's destructive policies,
which don't make Israel safer and which are now perhaps the primary
casus belli for would-be jihadists everywhere.
So thanks, Richard Clarke. We appreciate your candor and your
willingness to brave the administration's fury—book deal or not. We
respect your view that more should have been done prior to 9/11. But
we aren't sure what that might have been. We have trouble with the
general notion of pre-emption in the absence of hard intelligence
relating to specific upcoming terror strikes—without which, the
result will be only more bilious anti-Americanism and less security.