- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

For months, Democratic partisans have made one thing perfectly clear: While they hoped to run for, and win, the White House based on domestic issues, to defeat George W. Bush they must diminish public confidence in the president’s wartime leadership. Nothing would appear better suited to advance this agenda than the highly publicized defection this weekend of one of Mr. Bush’s former senior national security staffers, Richard Clarke.

At this writing, it is not entirely clear whether Mr. Clarke is a witting tool of the Democrats’ Bush take-down agenda, or whether he has simply written his new book, “Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror,” in such a way that it lends itself to the effort to discredit President Bush’s stewardship as commander in chief.

Whichever may be the case, it would seem unwise to cast Richard Clarke in the role of poster-boy for the national security critique of the Bush presidency.

For one thing, Mr. Clarke’s central argument — namely, Mr. Bush was obsessed with Iraq and indifferent to al Qaeda from the get-go of his administration — is highly debatable. Not surprisingly, a number of those who had worked with Mr. Clarke when he served as this president’s national counterterrorism coordinator challenge his facts.

For example, in an op-ed article in Monday’s edition of The Washington Post, Mr. Clarke’s boss at the National Security Council, Condoleezza Rice, wrote that a paper devising “a strategy to eliminate al Qaeda which was expected to take years” was developed in the spring and summer of 2001. It was designed to “marshal … all elements of national power to take down the network, not just respond to individual attacks with law enforcement measures. … This became the first major foreign-policy strategy document of the Bush administration not Iraq, not the ABM Treaty, but eliminating al Qaeda.”

Unfortunately, though this strategy was deemed ready for the president’s approval at the time of the September 11 attacks, it had yet to be addressed by him. Still, it is wrong to suggest al Qaeda threat was being ignored by the Bush team.

To their credit, even some prominent Democrats have taken exception to one part or another of the Clarke thesis. For instance, in response to Mr. Clarke’s contention that Mr. Bush shifted focus prematurely to Saddam Hussein after the acts of terror on September 11, 2001, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut told “Fox News Sunday”: “The charge, if I hear it correctly, that Dick Clarke has made, that the Bush administration was more focused on Iraq in the days after September 11, than on September 11 and getting back at the terrorists, I see no basis for it.” Meanwhile over on ABC’s “This Week,” Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware disputed Mr. Clarke’s claim the war in Iraq “strengthened the fundamentalist, radical Islamic terrorist movement worldwide.”

Mr. Biden declared, “I think it’s unfair to blame the president for the spread of terror and the diffuseness of it. Even if he had followed the advice of me and many other people, I still think the same thing would have happened.” More troubling still is Dick Clarke’s confidence back in 2001 (and, apparently, today), as quoted in The Washington Post on Monday, that “no foe but al Qaeda ‘poses an immediate and serious threat to the United States.’ ” So, too, is his ill-concealed contempt for those who were concerned before and after September 11 about links between Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network and a weapon of mass destruction-equipped state-sponsor of terror like Saddam.

Even CIA Director George Tenet — who was, like Mr. Clarke, a Bill Clinton appointee retained by President Bush — has recognized there were myriad connections between bin Laden operatives and the Iraqi dictator’s senior intelligence and military personnel. As the Weekly Standard noted in its March 22 edition: “In [an unclassified Oct. 7, 2002 letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee], Tenet wrote of ‘senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade.’ He wrote of ‘solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad.’ The same ‘credible reporting’ reveals that ‘Iraq has provided training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.’ Most striking, Mr. Tenet reported that ‘Baghdad’s links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action.’ ”

Democrats should resist the temptation to exploit Richard Clarke as a means of attacking President Bush for one other reason: Doing so will only further encourage retaliatory attacks aimed at discrediting a man who has rendered valuable service over a long time to his country.

Unfortunately, such attacks have been invited by the tone and contents of Mr. Clarke’s book and the comments he has made to promote it — all of which seem to be a striking departure from his usual, professional comportment.

Although I have not always agreed with Dick’s judgment or policy prescriptions, and most especially those he now espouses, I very much hope the debate can focus on the true substance of the War on Terror, and not on this retired civil servant and his seemingly skewed views thereof.

Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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