Wednesday, April 7, 2004

I’ve been waiting for the white-hot rage generated by Dick Clarke — and the White House’s response to him — to cool down to a nice umber before I offered this conclusion: Dick Clarke makes a powerful case for why George W. Bush should be re-elected — and why George W. Bush should admit he’s made some mistakes.

First of all, at this point it seems pretty clear that there’s a lot of personal animus behind Clarke’s charges. Just look at the yawning chasm between the substance of Clarke’s charges and the passion with which he delivers them. As George Will and others have noted, when you actually focus on what Clarke says — not just in his book but in his interviews and testimony — it’s mostly atmospheric and adjectival. Clarke brims with “impressions” about Bush’s “lackadaisical” approach to terrorism as well as Bill Clinton’s “urgent” attention to it — except, says Clarke, when Clinton had understandably more important priorities, like the Balkans or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In Clarke’s telling, Bush always gets zero credit for anything he did — like quadrupling the budget for covert action against al-Qaida — while Clinton gets the full benefit-of-the-doubt package. Indeed, the latest news to undercut Clarke’s case, reported by the Washington Times, is that Clinton’s final National Security policy paper, 45,000 words long, didn’t mention al-Qaida at all and mentioned Osama bin Laden a scant four times. It mentions terrorism quite a bit, but in the usual laundry lists of priorities. When it’s specific, it addresses terrorism purely in the language of law enforcement, boasting about how it is bringing “fugitives” to justice to “answer for their crimes” and the like.

As is their wont, the media covered the heat, not the light, making it sound as if Bush could have stopped 9/11. But it turns out that if you look for the substance in Clarke’s attack, it’s either not there or it’s very moderate. When 9/11 commissioner and former Senator Slade Gorton asked Clarke — conveniently under oath — if Bush had followed every single policy recommendation Clarke had made going back years, whether there was “the remotest chance” al-Qaida could have been foiled on 9/11, Clarke replied succinctly, “No.”

As for Clarke’s criticism of Bush’s post-9/11 policies, it boils down to the fact that Clarke opposed the Iraq war. That’s fine, but he offers nothing new there.

But one new thing Clarke did add was that apology. Now, I know that among Clarke’s detractors, his mea culpa was offensive not only for its obvious arrogance but for its grandstanding. I tend to agree. But, it was also something a lot of Americans wanted to hear from … someone, even Clarke.

I don’t think Bush owes anybody a personal apology. He has zero moral culpability in the mass murder perpetrated by al-Qaida. But he does have official accountability as the head of the executive branch. And it seems to me that the executive branch — and the other branches and the media, for that matter — all failed on 9/11. The job description of all of these institutions say that they should have been on top of one of the most important developments in American history — and they weren’t. My evidence: a lot of dead Americans.

Unfortunately, the administration seems to think that admitting any fault, even institutional fault, will cause confidence in Bush’s leadership to evaporate. I just don’t think that’s true. Recognizing the obvious fact that mistakes were made is reassuring to most people because it reveals that someone understands what needs to be fixed. I think the White House has a very good grasp on what needs to be fixed, but they have a poor grasp at how to communicate the progress they’re making — in Iraq and in our own government.

Which brings me to the case for Bush’s re-election. When you strip out the biliousness from Clarke’s charges, one thing comes through loud and clear: The Bush team didn’t adjust to the dangers of al-Qaida quickly enough. They were clearly putting the right policies in place, but they had to learn on the job. They eventually accepted almost all of Clarke’s recommendations, including an all-out assault on Afghanistan after 9/11. In fact, it was Condoleezza Rice who insisted on keeping Clarke on board in the White House in order to maintain “continuity” between the administrations. Clarke repaid her by saying she’d “ignored” the threat of terrorism.

Well, if this administration, brimming with all of these alleged hawks and cowboys — Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Wolfowitz — still needed to get up to speed on the terrorist threat, do we really believe that John Kerry won’t need even more on-the-job-training? Even if Kerry were as hawkish on terror as Bush — or even Clarke — he would still need to bone up. Unfortunately, Kerry’s not only not up to speed, but he’s actually committed to the notion that this isn’t even a war on terrorism so much as a job for law enforcement. Do we really want him to learn the error of his ways on the job?

Jonah Goldberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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