April 1, 2004 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

Fault Lines

Richard Clarke says he warned us.

The former anti-terrorism adviser worked for four presidents before becoming a media darling and best-selling author.

During a recent interview with "60 Minutes," Clarke promoted his new book by pinning the blame for the Sept. 11 attacks on the current Bush administration. "[President Bush] ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop Sept. 11. Maybe. We'll never know," he told Lesley Stahl.

Clarke says he had a plan in place. About a week before the attacks, he says he encouraged the president to bomb al Qaeda's sanctuary in Afghanistan and to kill bin Laden. Even so, Clarke admits that, had his plan been adopted in January 2001, it still wouldn't have prevented Sept. 11.

It's never polite to say, "We told you so." But since that's what Clarke's trying to do, let's recall what Heritage Foundation Middle East expert James Phillips had to say about terrorism in October 2000:

"Washington … should look beyond the terrorist pawns deployed by bin Laden and take action against the states that support him: the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that gives him sanctuary and possibly Saddam Hussein's Iraqi dictatorship. The U.S. goal should be to oust these regimes, not merely to contain them, because as long as they remain in power the United States and its allies face a heightened threat from international terrorism."

That is exactly what the Bush administration has done since Sept. 11. And it's working. We're taking the fight to the terrorists. That's a key reason there hasn't been a terrorist attack on U.S. soil in two-and-a-half years.

Clarke would not have supported such strong measures, though. He told Stahl: "So what did we do after Sept.11? We invade and occupy an oil-rich Arab country, which was doing nothing to threaten us. In other words, we stepped right into bin Laden's propaganda."

It's like the old Chinese finger prison -- President Bush is stuck no matter what he does. Clarke says Sept. 11 was his fault because he wasn't aggressive enough before we were attacked. But Clarke also would blame the president for any future attack, because it would result from Bush's aggressive leadership since Sept. 11.

Yet Clarke is surprisingly reluctant to criticize President Clinton, who also ignored Clarke's advice to kill bin Laden. In 2002, Clarke told PBS' "Frontline" it was almost impossible for Clinton to hunt him down. After all, "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 counter-terrorism world at a time when they were also pursuing other national goals."

Oh. So in Clarke's mind, President Clinton gets a pass for ranking Yugoslavia ahead of al Qaeda, but Sept. 11 is President Bush's fault.

Just for the sake of argument, let's assume Bush had aggressively targeted bin Laden in the spring of 2001. What would international reaction have been?

Consider the outcry when Israel assassinated Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin. Yassin was a terrorist, directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people. One might expect his passing would be celebrated.

Instead, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Israel's act "is unacceptable, it is unjustified, and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives." Straw called Yassin "an 80-year-old in a wheelchair." And he added Israel "is not entitled [to] this kind of unlawful killing, and we therefore condemn it."

All that from our staunchest ally in the war on terrorism. Now imagine the international outcry if we had killed bin Laden in early 2001.

That doesn't mean it shouldn't have been done. In fact, it could have been done long before 2001 by another president that Richard Clarke served. Would that have prevented 9/11? As Clarke himself might say: "Maybe. We'll never know."

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office