Every New President's Fatal Blind Spot
By Stan Crock
Partisan fury is flying over Richard A. Clarke's explosive charge that President George W. Bush and his Administration acted lackadaisically before September 11 in response to repeated warnings of a possible al Qaeda attack. The Democrats rail at Bush for pursuing a unilateral, Lone Ranger foreign policy that discounted Clarke's work as a top anti-terrorism official whose White House tenure carried over from Clinton to Bush. The Republicans bay that Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee, would give the U.N. Security Council a veto over how to protect American national-security interests -- exactly the sort of woolly headed thinking on foreign affairs that long has frightened voters.
These campaign caricatures have consequences that go beyond voting on Election Day. They end up distorting the way a new Administration governs, according to former National Security Council officials of both parties. A serious management lesson needs to be learned here, but nobody seems to be hearing it.
The reason the Bush Administration is reacting so strongly to Clarke's charges is that they have a ring of truth to them -- and could be devastating to the President's chances of reelection in November if left unanswered. So let's go back to 2000 -- before the last election -- and see why that's so.
Condoleezza Rice, who became Bush's National Security Adviser, wrote an article for Foreign Affairs that outlined what a Bush foreign policy would look like. Rice served up what was then the Republican attack line against the Clinton-Gore Administration: Foreign policy was an undisciplined, inconsistent muddle that failed to separate the important from the trivial.
What was on her list of important issues? Bolstering America's military, promoting economic growth through free-trade pacts and a stable monetary system, renewing ties with allies, and focusing on Major Power relations, particularly those with Russia and China. The final priority: Dealing with rogue nations and hostile powers. The threat of terrorism? It was briefly mentioned in a subordinate clause, where she noted only the potential for danger. Otherwise, not a mention in a 6,500-word opus on foreign policy.
The thrust of the GOP message at the time was that if you take care of the big things, the little problems take care of themselves. Rice and others scoffed that the Clinton Administration's focus on transnational threats, such as AIDS, and on mounting missile strikes against suspected terrorist camps were secondary or tertiary considerations. Their disdain for the Clintonites was visceral -- everything the previous Administration did was wrong. Over the course of the campaign, the Bush team talked themselves into believing their own rhetoric.
When the Bush folks got into the White House, they acted on their beliefs. It's no stretch to imagine, as Clarke charges, that when a Clinton holdover told them something was important, they dismissed it. Making matters worse, once in government, these officials had a lot more information than anyone on the outside. With crushing workloads, they didn't have the time to talk to independent experts -- never mind that they didn't think it would be worthwhile, because those outside experts didn't have the most current data and were thought to be three steps behind.
Result: The Bush team formulated policy in a vacuum, mulling ideas among themselves. This happens with every Administration, not just Bush's, according to those I spoke with who have been there from both parties.
Eventually, it dawns on those in power that the previous Administration may actually have had good reasons for pursuing its priorities. A good example: The policy of strategic ambiguity in the Taiwan Strait, which for years was embraced by Republican and Democratic Administrations. The idea was to discourage Taipei from being provocative by suggesting that in some instances -- for example, if Taiwan went too far toward independence -- the U.S. would not come to the country's aid. And Washington wanted to keep the possibility of intervention alive to discourage Beijing from attacking.
Bush's foreign policy advisers during the campaign loved to castigate Clinton for adhering to the policy. They wanted a tilt toward Taiwan. When they got into office, they initially tried to do that, but they quickly saw the folly and risk of doing so, backed off, and adopted the traditional position. Put it down to a lesson learned the hard way.
In this context, we can see how the Bush Administration chose to ignore the gathering concerns of the Clinton foreign-policy team in the late '90s over what to do about al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The Bushies were still on a learning curve when the planes struck the World Trade Center.
By the same token, Clarke makes a strong point when, in his book, Against All Enemies, he asserts that any Administration, Democratic or Republican, would have declared war on terrorism and launched attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan after September 11. Once you're inside the bubble of policymaking and fully engaged, the problems pretty much look the same, and the dynamics of policy have a momentum all their own.
Unfortunately, that's the progression every Administration goes through. And these days, with politics a blood sport and partisanship becoming ever more rancid, every policy pursued by a predecessor has to be criticized and rejected. Rhetoric gets overheated, discussions become insular, a new policy is launched, and only later is it reversed.
It's all too predictable -- and costly, in the view of those who have been there. As the stakes get ever higher, this is a dynamic America can ill afford. And unfortunately, if the flap over Clarke is any indication, the situation is getting worse, not better.
Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht