Reaping the Whirlwind
'The Age of Sacred Terror' by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon and 'The High Cost of Peace' by Yossef Bodansky
Reviewed by Mark Strauss
Washington Post - Sunday, October 20, 2002; Page BW03
THE AGE OF SACRED TERROR
By Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon
Random House. 490 pp. $25.95
THE HIGH COST OF PEACE
How Washington's Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism
By Yossef Bodansky
Forum. 652 pp. $27.95
Bill Clinton was not been present at the hearings of the House-Senate committee investigating intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11th attacks. But the former president stands accused in spirit, as witnesses duel over how much was actually done during the 1990s to confront the threat of Osama bin Laden.
Unfortunately for seekers of historical truth, there's rarely much middle ground when it comes to discussing Clinton's record. On one side are the conspiracy theorists for whom the president could do no right. In their eyes, Clinton's eight years in office were a string of cynical ad hoc policy initiatives designed to boost the scandal-ridden president's standing in the polls. On the other side are the veterans of his administration, who see their accomplishments tarred by the baseless accusations of a right-wing lynch mob and a salacious press.
Two new books on Clinton's policies toward al Qaeda fall into this familiar pattern and reveal that, even as the country is united against bin Laden, it remains bitterly divided over the legacy of President George W. Bush's predecessor. Yossef Bodanksy -- the director of the House Republican Research Committee's Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare -- represents the Clinton bashers. In The High Cost of Peace, he barely contains his outrage as he charts a series of Middle East policy missteps that he claims antagonized al Qaeda into striking the United States. Playing the role of administration insiders, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon -- who served respectively as director and senior director for counterterrorism at the White House's National Security Council -- offer a carefully researched chronicle, The Age of Sacred Terror. Their book purports to defend the president but, ironically, provides Clinton's enemies with more credible ammunition than do Bodansky's tirades.
Benjamin and Simon seek to portray a White House that was increasingly alarmed by the rise of al Qaeda and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction even as the rest of Washington slumbered. So who's to blame for Sept. 11? It's the bureaucracy, stupid.
The Age of Sacred Terror catalogues how infighting and inertia among the government's fiefdoms stymied the Clinton administration's efforts to mobilize the United States against al Qaeda. The FBI, for instance, sat on a "trove of information" that it never bothered to share with the CIA or other national security officials. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin effectively vetoed a plan to conduct covert operations against banks suspected of laundering funds for al Qaeda, arguing that such operations would reduce confidence in the United States as "the guarantor of the international financial system." The State Department, which largely "had a hard time wrapping its mind around the issue," dragged its feet in implementing measures to safeguard U.S. embassies against terrorist attacks.
Likewise, the Pentagon offered little in the way of creative solutions. The military brass didn't want to go out on a limb for Clinton after the Somalia debacle, and the Pentagon didn't consider counterterrorism to be part of its mandate. Consequently, when the White House approached the Pentagon in late 1998 to draw up plans to strike bin Laden, defense officials presented an unwieldy "$2 billion option" for invading Afghanistan that was a complete nonstarter. Later, Clinton approached Joint Chiefs Chairman Hugh Shelton to propose a special forces operation, saying that: "[It] would scare the [expletive] out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp." But the Pentagon feared another "Desert One" -- the failed mission to rescue the U.S. hostages in Iran during the Carter administration. The White House never gave the order, dreading a public-relations disaster if word leaked that the military was compelled to undertake an operation that it considered suicidal.
With telling detail and crisp prose, Benjamin and Simon's book may emerge as the best insider account of the pre-Sept. 11 fight against al Qaeda. (Their initial chapters that chronicle the evolution of radical Islamist ideology and the rise of bin Laden are especially good.) But while they say their intent is not to absolve the Clinton administration of its sins of omission and they agonize over whether more could have been done against al Qaeda, their catalogue of mitigating circumstances too often reads like a laundry list of excuses. Clinton couldn't take to the bully pulpit to raise awareness of the threat, because his warnings would not likely "have made a difference to those who were singing 'Wag the Dog' on CNN." Clinton couldn't fire FBI director Louis Freeh, because that would have appeared to be a conflict of interests in light of the bureau's ongoing investigations of the administration. Prior to Sept. 11, there was "no basis" for waging a war in Afghanistan, and "no honest assessment could show that such a campaign was politically feasible." Bureaucratic inertia is inevitable, Benjamin and Simon say, because there is no such thing as an "omnipotent presidency."
It's certainly true that Americans can't expect their president to be omnipotent -- but they also have every right to expect him to be competent. Particularly in times of crisis, the president's job description is to overcome bureaucratic rivalry, not to be immobilized by it. Clinton himself proved he was capable of decisive action when he cut through political and bureaucratic resistance to wage a war to end ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, which had less apparent relevance to America's national security than did the activities of Islamic terrorists. Today, even those who disagree with Bush's intention to attack Iraq can't dispute his skill at steamrolling Congress, the State Department, the Pentagon, even the United Nations. Benjamin and Simon's portrayal of the White House's paralysis, even as the highest levels of government were increasingly aware of the al Qaeda threat, will do little to burnish Clinton's legacy.
Meanwhile, Yossef Bodansky believes that Clinton's pursuit of a legacy was precisely the problem. The High Cost of Peace doesn't specifically address the events leading up to Sept. 11 but suggests that Clinton irresponsibly poked the Islamist hornet's nest with a stick when he fostered a flawed Middle East peace process. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Bodansky says, never intended to make peace with Israel. Instead, he saw the Oslo negotiations as a pretext to get a foothold in Palestine and prepare for the phased destruction of the Jewish state. Arafat made common cause with Islamic terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to compel Israel to retaliate against the Palestinian Authority and thereby foment another intifada. (Bin Laden played his part by sending "dozens of highly trained terrorists -- most of them Arabs -- to the Arafat-controlled parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.") Then, once Israel began fighting the Palestinians and found itself isolated in the international community, a military force led by an axis of Iraq, Syria and Iran would strike the Jewish state when it was at its most vulnerable. According to Bodansky, Clinton was so obsessed with getting into the history books that he turned a blind eye to these developments and instead seduced and browbeat the Israelis into making concessions that merely emboldened Arafat and his Islamic cadres.
It's hard to say for sure how much of what Bodansky writes is hard fact and how much is speculation. He never uses footnotes, because he doesn't want to jeopardize the lives of his sources. More broadly, his long-time zeal for exposing global Islamist conspiracies has made him into a "machine-gun analyst" who fires accusations in every direction. In The High Cost of Peace, this penchant for unraveling plots yields several screwball assessments of U.S. policymakers. Allegedly, Clinton was so obsessed with re-election in 1996 and winning over voters with cheap oil that he made Muslim interests the focal point of his foreign policy: "Hence, Bosnia had to become a Muslim state, come hell or high water, and the administration would bomb the civilian infrastructure of Yugoslavia for the sake of Kosovo Albanians. . . . The Clinton administration risked the alienation of Russia to a Cold War level in favoring the Chechens." And, inevitably, Monica Lewinksy makes a guest appearance, allegedly compelling Clinton to bomb Iraq in 1998 to divert attention from the growing sex scandal.
What little analysis Bodansky offers on the connection between the failed peace process and the rise of al Qaeda puts a rightward spin on the left's "blame the victim" argument attributing Sept. 11 to America's arrogance and its close ties with the Jewish state. Clinton aroused "frustration and wrath" throughout the Muslim world because of his failure to "deliver" Israel. Moreover, "the enduring legacy of the Clinton administration's 'humanitarian aggression'. . . has been to make the Arab world even more virulently radicalized and uncompromisingly hostile to the U.S.-led West." (Wait -- isn't this the very same "humanitarian aggression" that Bodansky earlier argued appeased the Muslim world?)
Bodansky suggests that the only way to stem the rise of Islamic radicals is to promote a "new Middle East" where key Arab governments will undertake economic reforms and "make a meaningful commitment to peaceful coexistence with everybody." On this point at least, Benjamin and Simon agree: "Democratization, however hazardous and unpredictable the process may be, is the key to eliminating sacred terror over the long term." As disputed as Clinton's record against al Qaeda may be, the true measure of his successor's legacy in the war against terror will be how well he accomplishes this monumental task. •
Mark Strauss is a senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine.