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By Ciro Scotti A funny thing happened on my late-night cab ride in Manhattan a couple of weeks ago. I had been reading Against All Enemies, the controversial new book by former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, with its riveting account of the Bush Administration's extraordinary performance in the hours after the September 11 attacks. I had watched a somber Clarke on 60 Minutes and saw him grimly but eloquently stand his ground on Meet the Press.
So as the taxi whizzed past the new Time Warner Center, it was somewhat surreal to spot Clarke standing on the corner with another man, laughing heartily. It's good that Richard Clarke can laugh once in a while because he has taken on the most serious of tasks: Calling to account a Presidency that failed in its vigilance but more important -- used the death of innocents to lead the country into a war it had been longing to wage.
TEAR DOWN THE CRITICS. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, the Clarke superior whom his book buries with faint praise, tried to make a cogent case before the September 11 commission on Apr. 8 that the newly arrived Bush Administration had done a reasonable job of pulling guard duty for the republic. All she really needed to say in her public testimony was: "We were new. We were inexperienced. We didn't have our eye on the ball. We're sorry." But she never did that, and what she did say was largely irrelevant and already forgotten.
As irrelevant and discardable, in fact, are the scurrilous attacks on Clarke by Administration dobermans such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), whose reputation as a classy politician/physician lies shattered on the Capitol floor. On Mar. 26, Frist said he found the Clarke book to be "an appalling act of profiteering, trading on his insider access to highly classified information and capitalizing on the tragedy that befell this nation on September 11, 2001."
The main aim of the Bush disinformation machine seems to be this: Tear down critics of America's preparedness before the attacks, and, above all, keep the discussions focused on September 11. Because no matter how much or how little you believe in the gospel according to Clarke, most reasonable Americans aren't going to blame the Bushies for failing to foresee and prevent the slaughter of civilians by a band of suicidal zealots.
NUMBINGLY CLEAR. Even the Aug. 6, 2001, report to the President entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S." will leave many Americans unconvinced that the Bushies were derelict in their duty. Unlucky, maybe. But not derelict. Because September 11, 2001, might just as easily have happened on September 11, 2000, when a different President had been in office for eight years -- not eight months.
The truly damning part about Against All Enemies, however, is what Clarke reveals about the Administration's mindset on Iraq. What George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz really have to answer for is the insidious way in which they used the Twin Tower horror to coax the country into supporting an attack on Iraq.
Put Clarke's book together with The Price of Loyalty by former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and The Path to War, a brilliant piece of reporting in the current issue of Vanity Fair by Brian Burrough, Evgenia Peretz, David Rose, and David Wise, and the picture that emerges is numbingly clear: Bush's neoconservative advisers had Iraq in their sights well before his inauguration.
WHY WAR? Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle, and a whole procession of acolytes who worship at the altar of Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis had all urged regime change in Iraq in 1998. Some even earlier. But why?
Why was this Administration so hell-bent on taking out Saddam Hussein that it would turn its back on a world offering sympathy and support after September 11? Why was it so adamant in its adventurism that it would gild the threat that Iraq posed to the U.S. -- and then put our troops in harm's way -- when no clear or present danger existed? Those questions demand answers.
Clarke cites five rationales for the invasion: Finishing the job Bush I started, pulling U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia (where they were a counterweight to Iraq but unwelcome), creating a model Arab democracy, opening a new and friendly oil supply line, and safeguarding Israel by eliminating a military threat.
"THE REAL THREAT"? Philip Zelikow, now the executive director of the September 11 commission, served on the National Security Council, was on the Bush transition team, and was a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 2001 to 2003. According to the Inter Press Service, he said during a war-on-terror forum at the University of Virginia Law School on Sept. 10, 2002: "I'll tell you what the real threat [is] and actually has been since 1990 -- it's the threat against Israel. And this is the threat that dares not speak its name because...the American government doesn't want to lean too hard on it rhetorically because it's not a popular sell."
So to boil all this down, we went to war, sacrificed thousands of human lives, racked up billions in bills, and flouted the rules of international law for three basic reasons: Israel, oil, and the vengeance of a son whose father didn't finish off Saddam and then was targeted for assassination by the Iraqi Horror Show in 1993? When you think that Bill Clinton was impeached and almost tossed out of office for fooling around with a willing intern and then lying about it, his sins seem like very small potatoes. Very small potatoes indeed. Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online