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Dick Clarke’s American grandstand

Guy W. Farmer

Let’s start today’s column with a prediction: In the high-stakes battle for credibility between National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and former counter-terrorism coordinator Richard Clarke, Dr. Rice will eventually win and Clarke will lose. That outcome was guaranteed last Tuesday when the White House agreed to permit Rice to testify publicly under oath before the 9/11 Commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York and Washington.

Until the decision to permit Dr. Rice to testify, Clarke had things pretty much his way in accusing President Bush of being “soft” on terrorism. First, he was invited to CBS for a half-hour sweetheart interview with “60 Minutes” correspondent Leslie Stahl. What the network failed to mention, however, is that Viacom, the media conglomerate that owns CBS also published Clarke’s new book “Against All Enemies.” Can you say conflict of interest? In a halfhearted attempt at journalistic balance, “60 Minutes” subjected Rice to a hostile 15-minute interview last Sunday by veteran correspondent Ed Bradley. Draw your own conclusions about their political agenda.

Clarke began his carefully orchestrated appearance before the 9/11 Commission by apologizing to the families of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and accusing President Bush of downplaying efforts against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda terrorists in favor of a war against Iraq. But after the 9/11 attacks, Bush decided to invade Afghanistan – not Iraq – in pursuit of bin Laden and the murderous Taliban regime. The Iraq invasion came one year later.

William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, questioned Clarke’s apology. “Richard Clarke can apologize to anyone he likes,” Kristol opined last week. “He could have done so sooner. And he could have done so privately…. Surely the only apology that is owed – though it would presumably be rejected by the families – would be an apology from Osama bin Laden just prior to his execution … It would be no more appropriate for President Bush to apologize today than it would have been for President Roosevelt to apologize for Pearl Harbor.” That’s the way I see it too.

But career bureaucrat Clarke was singing a far different tune before he resigned in January, 2003, to write his Bush-bashing book. In a closed-door appearance before a congressional committee in mid-2002, he praised the incoming administration’s anti-terrorism policies and later told White House correspondents that the Bush team had authorized “a five-fold increase in (anti-terrorist) funding…and changed the strategy from one of rollback with al-Qaeda…to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of al-Qaeda.” So was he telling the truth then, or is he telling the truth now?

In last Sunday’s Appeal, fellow columnist Joseph Perkins noted that the Clinton administration was slow to respond to al-Qaeda’s 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, its 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and its 2000 terrorist attack against the USS Cole in Yemen. “Clinton limply responded by lobbing a few cruise missiles at a reputed terrorist camp in Afghanistan and a suspected chemical plant in the Sudan,” Perkins wrote. So any suggestion that Bill Clinton was tougher on international terrorism than George W. Bush is laughable.

Perkins also pointed out that before Clarke was passed over for deputy director of the new Homeland Security Department, he conceded that “there was no plan on al-Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration.” And he acknowledged that even if all of his recommendations had been implemented by the incoming administration, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks couldn’t have been prevented. All of which makes Clarke’s current diatribe against President Bush sound like sour grapes, and it also smacks of shameless grandstanding as part of a book-selling campaign.

If Clarke was really so upset by Bush’s “soft” approach to international terrorism and his controversial decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein’s genocidal regime in Iraq, he should have done the honorable thing and resigned his high-level post at the National Security Council. That’s what most of my Foreign Service colleagues would have done. A recent example is career diplomat John Brady Kiesling, a former political counselor at the American Embassy in Athens, Greece, who resigned because of his opposition to the Iraq War.

When I first joined the Foreign Service in 1968, I was opposed to the Vietnam War even as I took an oath to support and defend U.S. policy in my official role as an embassy spokesman. I simply explained the Vietnam policy publicly and kept my personal opinions to myself. But if the situation had worsened and we had remained in Vietnam, I would have resigned on principle, which is what Clarke should have done in 2001.

Clarke and his book will become history next Thursday, when Condoleezza Rice testifies publicly under oath before the 9/11 Commission. And Democratic leaders, who started salivating when Clarke went public, will have to find a more credible anti-Bush hero. As it is, nearly 60 percent of Americans approve Bush’s handling of the terrorism threat, according to current polls, and the president’s job approval rating went up four points (to 53 percent) after Clarke testified before the Commission. Perhaps Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry will re-think his electoral strategy and come up with a new line of attack against President Bush because he can’t win on the terrorism issue.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.