Friday, 23 July 2010

Book Review: Against All Enemies, by Richard A. Clarke (2004)

For 10 years, Richard Clarke was the main counter-terrorism expert and Presidential adviser at the White House. Serving both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Clarke was the among the first to spot and identify the rising terrorist threat from fundamentalist Islam. He pushed counter-terrorism towards the top of Bill Clinton's agenda, but could get no traction with the new Bush administration. Although under his watch the US did achieve a few counter-terrorism successes, despite his best efforts Clarke could not convince Clinton to deliver the required critical pre-emptive strike against Al-Qaeda, and Clarke did not even come close to getting Bush's attention on the whole issue of terrorism.

It is therefore sad and ironic that Clarke found himself at the White House on the morning of September 11, 2001, vainly trying to coordinate the national response to the unfolding Al-Qaeda attacks, while fully expecting the next airplane to strike the White House itself. The opening chapter of the book, which replays that fateful day from inside the White House, is nothing short of gripping.

Clarke then watched with a combination of disgust and horror as the Bush team quickly turned its attention to an ideologically-driven invasion of Iraq, which played right into the hands of the extremists.

Against All Enemies is not without its faults. Clarke does tend to emphasize the strategic blunders of others while portraying himself as almost faultless. The book also provides a relatively limited examination of the origins of Islamic fundamentalism, making it appear as though the movement started in the Reagan era, and ignoring the much deeper origins from earlier in the 20th Century.

Setting those quibbles aside, Against All Enemies is an eye-opening account of how the White House dealt with terrorism for more than a decade. Clarke does an excellent job of revealing the continuous tension, conflict and turf wars between the White House, the FBI, the CIA and the Pentagon as the threat from Islamic extremists against the US took shape. He also takes aim at the career-first mentality that hindered decisive action; and does not shy from describing how the personal failures of the Presidents impaired their ability to act.

Clinton getting embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal was certainly an unwelcome distraction. Bush's limited understanding of the world ill-equipped him to counter the wild-eyed conservative agenda pushed by his Vice President and closest advisers. But Clarke leaves no doubt that for all his faults, Clinton was by far the more impressive President, demonstrating a quick grasp of the issues and a nimble, endlessly curious mind.

In the latter part of the book, Clarke unleashes a devastatingly bare-knuckled assault on Bush's decision to invade Iraq. History has so far proven Clarke's assessment to be accurate, and Against All Enemies provides a succinct summary of why by invading Iraq, Bush may have led America into one of its most counterproductive military misadventures in its history.

Clarke's writing is blunt, entertaining and sometimes quite humorous, making Against All Enemies both a unique peek into the White House and an enjoyable read.

Subtitled "Inside America's War On Terror".
Published in hardcover by Free Press.
291 pages plus Index.

The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

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