Evoking those steamy, fear-filled days of August 1814, Washington is again hot, bothered and praying for rain. This time, it is not a British army running the White House administration out of town. Instead, it is the compelling, courageous and stubborn revelations of longtime administration terrorism guru Richard Clarke.
His book, "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror," was submitted to the administration for review over six months ago. It sets out how the Bush administration came to office obsessed with Saddam Hussein, put al-Qaida on the back burner and, after 9/11, used that event to implement a long-held plan to go into Baghdad. That the administration approved Clarke's book for release may have been a White House oversight, or even a tactical miscalculation.
But it is not only the book itself, but Clarke's temperate, calm, and knowledgeable public presentation of the facts that has frightened the White House to its very core.
The Bush-Cheney campaign is riding a single horse to November: Their approach to war on terror. More and more, it seems the White House takes its war on terror about as seriously as it takes its war on steroids.
We might have known this earlier. In early 2000, Condoleezza Rice explained the Bush approach to security in Foreign Affairs magazine. In an article containing almost 7,000 words on national security, she mentions terrorism only five times: four in terms of rogue states like Iraq, and one referring to Chechnya. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, having repeatedly attacked U.S. military and diplomatic facilities and killed Americans in the 1990s, and against whom President Clinton had retaliated militarily, warranted not a single mention by the future national security advisor.
Bush himself has repeatedly confirmed Clarke's facts. The Bush-Cheney ticket has proven to be willfully blind to how terrorism works and, consequently, how it can be reduced or eliminated. It is a strange cold fact that human and physical resources were prematurely and carelessly shifted from the effort to root out al-Qaida in Afghanistan to fuel the long-favored neoconservative goal of rooting out Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
The president and vice president do not deny that Saddam Hussein's rule was always a bigger thorn in their side than the decentralized and difficult-to-target al-Qaida. This is public knowledge, contained in late 1990s publications of future Bush political appointees, and in Bush-friendly books like Bob Woodward's "Bush at War" and David Frum's "The Right Man."
At one time, Saddam Hussein, like current dictators in Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, served a useful purpose. The future of Iraq might have evolved, under its own power through domestic reformers, in the pattern of post-Suharto Indonesia. Suharto, a former ally, was dictator for 30 years, was accused of genocide and murder of his own citizens, and was recently awarded the title of "most corrupt leader in modern history," beating out Ferdinand Marcos and Mobutu Sese Seko. A lot like Saddam Hussein, without the WMD. Which is to say, a lot like Saddam Hussein.
Our current deputy secretary of defense and lead soprano in the "topple Saddam" choir, Paul Wolfowitz, knows the Suharto story better than anyone. As U.S. ambassador to Indonesia under Reagan, he was a strong advocate for the U.S.-Indonesia alliance. Over a decade later, in May 1997, Wolfowitz still sang Suharto's praises to Congress, noting that "progress [on human rights] has to be credited to the strong and remarkable leadership of President Suharto." In two years, the reformers had taken back Indonesia in a conflicted, but democratic, process.
It's too bad that Wolfowitz couldn't recognize and grant the same possibilities for Iraq under Hussein. But then again, perhaps he saw that possibility of change from within all too clearly, hence the urgency of a new U.S. friendly puppet government in Baghdad.
Clarke accurately describes the Cold Warriors in the Bush administration with "It was as though they were preserved in amber from when they left office eight years earlier." I and many others observed the same thing, at a lower level within the Pentagon.
The White House faces a grave and growing danger. Its attack machine is activated against Clarke, but, preferring character assassination over basic truth, it will be hard to sustain. Clarke's public stance of honor and credibility has real staying power, and it has already inspired and heartened both new witnesses and the mainstream media to seek and reveal the truth.
This truth is damaging to that single horse the administration is riding in this election race. The economy, the budget, the debt, veterans' benefits, military readiness, Medicare and social security crises, education, immigration -- all are issues where the administration has sorely disappointed conservatives like me, as well as liberals and independents, in every state. If the war-on-terror horse stumbles, the administration falls.
In 1814, grace prevailed in the form of a rare and unpredicted tornado that arrived while the city burned on the afternoon of Aug. 25:
"The tornado tore through the center of Washington and directly into the British occupation ... The collapsing buildings and flying debris killed several British soldiers. Many of the soldiers did not have time to take cover from the winds and they laid face down in the streets. One account describes how a British officer on horseback did not dismount and the winds slammed both horse and rider violently to the ground."
The rains that followed put out the fires, and much was saved.
The audacious Mr. Clarke is for all Americans a modern sign of grace, of the power of truth over deception, and of courage over cowardice. May the strong winds blow and the rain come down in Washington, and again save our Republic.