Bush's catastrophic allergy to Clinton.

Bush's catastrophic allergy to Clinton.

Bush's catastrophic allergy to Clinton.

Politics and policy.
March 23 2004 5:42 PM

Fatal in Difference

Bush's catastrophic allergy to Clinton.

A tainted man?
A tainted man?

Every once in a while, in the course of spinning the issue of the day, an administration accidentally betrays its broader mentality. Six weeks ago on Meet the Press, President Bush revealed his abstract notion of reality. Three weeks ago in his re-election ads, Bush displayed a confidence unhinged from facts and circumstances. This week, in response to criticism of its terrorism policy by a former Bush aide, the administration is betraying a third fundamental flaw: a categorical aversion to the ideas of the Clinton years.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The criticism comes from Richard Clarke, the man who coordinated Bush's terrorism and cyberterrorism policies for two years after serving Presidents Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton in similar capacities. In a new book and an interview on 60 Minutes, Clarke accuses the current Bush White House of brushing aside his warnings about al-Qaida before 9/11. How has the administration responded? Let's look at four examples. First, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on Good Morning America:

[Clarke] was the counterterrorism czar when the al-Qaida was strengthening in the '90s. … And those years of dealing with al-Qaida and trying to quote, "roll it back"—that was not acceptable to the president. … The president was the one who was saying, "When am I going have a strategy to eliminate al-Qaida?" Dick Clarke had an open door to me. … And he used it from time to time. But we needed a strategy to deal with al-Qaida that was different than what had been tried. We needed real military options, not pinpricks.

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Next, Vice President Dick Cheney's interview on Rush Limbaugh's radio show:

We're operating, obviously, with a very different policy [from Clinton's]. Tending to treat these matters primarily as law enforcement problems prior to 9/11, that in no way slowed down the terrorists. … [Clarke] was the head of counterterrorism for several years there in the '90s, and I didn't notice that they had any great success dealing with the terrorist threat.

Next, White House spokesman Scott McClellan at his daily press briefing:

The very first major policy directive of this administration was to develop a comprehensive strategy to eliminate al-Qaida—not roll it back, as some had previously called for, but to eliminate al-Qaida. … [Clarke] was talking about rolling back al-Qaida. We were focused on eliminating al-Qaida. … We didn't feel it was sufficient to simply roll back al-Qaida. We pursued a policy to eliminate al-Qaida.

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Finally, a White House statement issued Sunday night:

The President specifically told Dr. Rice that he was "tired of swatting flies" and wanted to go on the offense against al Qaeda, rather than simply waiting to respond. … NSC Deputies, the second-ranking officials in the NSC departments, met frequently between March and September 2001 to decide the many complex issues involved in the development of the comprehensive strategy against al Qaeda. … Although the issues involved were complex, the President's team completed the new strategy in less than six months and had the strategy ready to go to the President on September 4.

Notice what these four statements dismiss: Law enforcement. Pinpricks. Rolling it back. Swatting flies. That was why Clarke couldn't get a hearing. His ideas were too partial, too ad hoc, too Clintonesque. Bush wanted a bigger approach: Comprehensive. Strategy. Eliminate. Different. His "comprehensive strategy" was delivered on Sept. 4, 2001. Is the White House embarrassed that it spent those six months studying the "many complex issues involved in the development of the comprehensive strategy" instead of swatting the "flies" that would kill 3,000 Americans a week later? No. It's proud.

In his book, Clarke recalls, "In general, the Bush appointees distrusted anything invented by the Clinton administration." Thomas Maertens, a Clarke ally who ran the National Security Council's nuclear nonproliferation shop under Clinton and Bush, tells the New York Times that while Clarke was "saying again and again that something big was going to happen, including possibly here in the U.S.," the Bush team discounted his pleas because he had served under Clinton. "They really believed their campaign rhetoric about the Clinton administration," Maertens tells the Times. "So anything [the Clinton aides] did was bad, and the Bushies were not going to repeat it."

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What was the fly-swatting "law enforcement" approach the Bush team refused to repeat? In his 60 Minutes interview, Clarke cites the Cabinet meetings Clinton ordered in 1999 in response to intelligence chatter that suggested an imminent terrorist attack. Clarke explains how the meetings helped thwart a bombing plot against Los Angeles International Airport:

In December '99, every day or every other day, the head of the FBI or the head of the CIA, the attorney general, had to go to the White House and sit in the meeting and report on all of the things that they personally had done to stop the al-Qaida attack. So they were going back every night to their departments and shaking the trees personally, finding out all of the information. If that had happened in July of 2001, we might have found out in the White House, the attorney general might have found out that there were al-Qaida operatives in the United States. FBI at lower levels knew. Never told me. Never told the highest levels in the FBI. *

Does this mean Clinton did an exemplary job of fighting terrorism? Hardly. Clarke has plenty of complaints about what Clinton did. Some of it was good; some of it was bad. Clinton was inconsistent. Bush is the opposite: He worships consistency. He simplifies. He can't see any good in what Clinton did, so he throws out the good with the bad. No more fly-swatting. No more law enforcement. No more pinpricks. No more reactive Cabinet meetings. As Rice put it on the Today show Monday, "The key here was not to have a meeting. The key was to have a strategy." Bush's approach to al-Qaida was all or nothing. On Sept. 11, 2001, a week after his grand strategy was finished, he got his answer: Nothing.

The same all-or-nothing attitude pervades the Bush team's attack on Clarke's motives. In their world, as Bush has said, you're either with us or against us. They can't fathom why a guy who worked with them for two years would openly rebuke them. He supported Bush! He lunched with Rice! He's a registered Republican! How could he turn on them? He must have been a double agent. "His best buddy is Sen. Kerry's principal foreign policy adviser," McClellan sneered Monday. Never mind that his best buddy, like Clarke, served Bush for two years after working under Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton. To the current Bush team, there's no such thing as criticism from within. If you challenge the president, you're one of the enemy.

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It's funny, in retrospect, that Bush ran for president as a uniter. To unite a country, you have to acknowledge and reconcile differences. Bush doesn't work toward unity; he assumes it. He doesn't reconcile differences; he denies them. It's his tax cut or nothing. It's his homeland security bill or nothing. It's his terrorism policy or nothing. If you're playing politics, this is smart strategy. But if you're trying to help the country, it's foolish. The odds are that 50 percent of the other party's ideas are right. By ruling them out, you start your presidency 50 percent wrong.

Some of the resulting mistakes may be inconsequential. Some may cost 3,000 lives. Some may cost 2 million jobs. "If the Democratic policies had been pursued over the last two or three years … we would not have had the kind of job growth we've had," Cheney bragged three weeks ago. That's the way this administration thinks: We do things differently. But being different doesn't guarantee you a better result—just a different one.

Correction, March 26, 2004: Clarke's book says on p. 236 that the presence of al-Qaida operatives was known by the CIA, not the FBI. He writes:

Somewhere in CIA there was information that two known al Qaeda terrorists had come into the United States. Somewhere in FBI there was information that strange things had been going on at flight schools in the United States. I had asked to know if a sparrow fell from a tree that summer. What was buried in CIA and FBI was not a matter of one sparrow falling from a tree, red lights and bells should have been going off. They had specific information about individual terrorists from which one could have deduced what was about to happen. None of that information got to me or the White House. It apparently did not even make it up the FBI chain to Dale Watson, the Executive Assistant Director in charge of counterterrorism. I certainly know what I would have done, for we had done it at the Millennium: a nationwide manhunt, rousting anyone suspected of maybe, possibly having the slightest connection.

The book version is correct. The 60 Minutes version is incorrect. Return to the corrected portion.