Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, March 30, 2004 --
The timing of the explosive charges unveiled by former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clark had the ironic effect of obscuring his most important points. Appearing on CBS News' 60 Minutes program one day before public hearings of the Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Clark mistakenly ensured that allegations relating to the commission's work would dominate the headlines at the expense of all others.
Clark's beef with the administration boils down to two things: Bush did nothing to counter terrorism prior to September 11, and Bush put America much greater risk by fighting Iraq when he should have been fighting al-Qaeda. Because the commission is only focused on events leading up to September 11, Clark's first charge has received all the attention, although it is the second charge that really matters.
Although there is certainly value in understanding why U.S. authorities did not foil the September 11 attacks, it is far more important to steer future policy in a direction that reduces the danger faced by Americans. Clark has made a damning case that Bush's obsessive misadventure in Iraq has put the United States at greater risk. This war, he says, has created unprecedented anti-American sentiment and has taken the military pressure off of al-Qaeda.
Clark is not the first opponent of the Iraq war to make these claims. Opponents ranging from radical protesters to Presidential Candidate Howard Dean have long made the exact same arguments. Clark's agreement carries great weight, not because he offers any new evidence, but because it was his job in two presidential administrations to make these exact kind of judgments. Simply put, Clark has the very expertise to make such a determination credible.
During the lead up to the war, the Bush Administration was successfully able to deflect warnings that an Iraqi invasion would cause more terrorism by convincing Americans that Saddam Hussein's government was involved in the September 11 attacks. Although the Bush administration has denied any intent to mislead, over two years of official pronouncements mentioning al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in the same breath have had a devastating impact.
As recently as August of last year, 69 percent of Americans said they believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11 attacks.1 Educated people around the world know that this is utter nonsense. Unfortunately, America's president has not only avoided educating the public, but he has avoided educating himself. Perhaps Clark's most serious charge is that the president rejected his determination that al-Qaeda was responsible for September 11, and pressured him to produce a report blaming Iraq.2
Focusing American forces on Iraq when they should have been pursuing al-Qaeda has put America at risk. This is no longer a statement of the loony left, it is the conviction of the Republican-registered former White House counter-terrorism chief. Unfortunately, Americans are not convinced -- polls yesterday found that 58 percent of Americans still approve of the Bush administration's anti-terror policies.3 This is likely due to the fact that most Americans have never heard Clark's views on the Iraq War -- they have only heard his relatively mild criticism Bush's pre-September 11 performance.
It is regrettable that few Americans have heard Clark's views about the impact of the Iraq War on the fight against al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, it is likely that the information they have heard has planted a seed of doubt in their minds. This dormant seed might find itself on much more fertile ground if -- God forbid -- a Spanish-style terrorist attack hits America in coming months.
Regardless of when Americans see the light about Bush's policies, the damage from the Iraq War has already been done. Hope for the future lies in either convincing the president to repair this damage, or in finding a president who will.
1. Washington Post, Poll: Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 Attacks, September 6, 2003
2. CBS News, 60 Minutes, Interview with Richard Clark, March 21, 2004
3. CNN.com, Poll: Bush's position against Kerry strengthens, March 29, 2004