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Richard Clarke’s Complicated Iraq Calculus (Part One)



High-ranking National Security Council (NSC) veteran Richard Clarke consistently condemned President George W. Bush’s “unnecessary and costly war in Iraq” in his 2004 memoir Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. Yet Clarke’s own analysis reveals a much more complex picture of the policy choices involved in this “counterproductive Iraq fiasco” as well as his own optimism about “real Islam.”

Clarke was a study in contrasts on Iraq. In 2003, the Bush “administration had squandered the opportunity to eliminate al Qaeda and instead strengthened our enemies by going off on a completely unnecessary tangent, the invasion of Iraq,” Clarke wrote. Yet from his time in the NSC during the 1990-1991 Gulf War under President George H. W. Bush and under his successor in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton, Clarke wanted to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Reflecting on the 100-hour American-led ground offensive that routed the Iraqi army occupying Kuwait, Clarke explained:

More than anyone in the Clinton administration, I wanted an excuse to eliminate the Saddam Hussein regime. Having been involved in the Gulf War’s planning and execution, I had been furious when the war had stopped without eliminating the Republican Guard, and when Saddam had been permitted to mow down the Kurdish and Shi’a opposition while the U.S. stood idly by.

As Clarke explained, the only option in 1991 for ousting Hussein was to shatter his power base and thereby incite a domestic revolt against his minority Sunni Arab ruling clique among Iraq’s Shiite Arabs, Kurds, and other regime opponents. Otherwise, an American-led advance “continuing into Baghdad would have shattered the coalition and left the U.S. holding the very messy bag of an occupied Iraq.” Clarke elaborated:

There had never been a U.S. plan to march on Baghdad, nor an advocate in Washington for doing so. The Arab nations with large numbers of troops fighting in the coalition (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria) were not eager to see American troops occupy an Arab country, nor did they want to see the Shi’a Muslim majority take over Iraq and set up a pro­Iranian regime.

The Bush administration also shied away from the enormous task occupying Iraq. How much would that cost? What Iraqi would we put in charge? What would we do with the Shi’a majority in Iraq? Left to their own devices, they thought, the Iraqi army would no doubt pick some Sunni general, but one who would be less dangerous than Saddam.

“If we had bombed the Republican Guard and defended the Shi’a and Kurds, the Bush calculus that Saddam Hussein would fall without occupying Baghdad might have proved true,” Clarke summarized. Therefore, he opposed the politically motivated halt to the ground war in Kuwait, for

it was obvious then and now that another seventy-two hours of combat was needed. After all we had been through, we needed to insure that the Iraqi military was not strong enough to pose a future threat; otherwise we would have to keep our military in Saudi Arabia for the indefinite future.

Under President Clinton, Clarke continued to seek opportunities for his indirect strategy against Iraq, such as after the first World Trade Center bombing of February 26, 1993. “More than anyone, I wanted the World Trade Center attack to be an Iraqi operation so we could justify reopening the war with Iraq but there was no good evidence leading to Baghdad’s culpability,” he noted. He and other American officials “had always looked for Iraqi involvement in the World Trade Center attack of 1993, to no avail.”

Clarke similarly wanted to cry havoc after an attempted Iraqi assassination of former president Bush during an April 1993 visit to Kuwait. Clinton retaliated on June 26, 1993, with cruise missile strikes on Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad. By contrast, Clarke “had pressed for a major round of bombing of Iraq in 1993 after the Bush assassination attempt was uncovered.”

Such opposition to Hussein’s dictatorship in the Clinton Administration raised accusations of hypocrisy against Iraq war opponents such as Clarke. Supporters of Bush’s 2003 Iraqi regime change noted that in 1998 “Clinton signed a law making regime change in Iraq the American policy,” Clarke observed. Yet he again interpreted this strategy in a more subtle manner, as “neither the Congress nor Clinton had in mind regime change at the point of an American gun, a U.S. invasion of Iraq.”

When President George W. Bush undertook a direct invasion of Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Clarke considered Iraqi threats insufficient to justify such a massive response. “Like most national security bureaucrats, I believed Iraq had chemical and/or biological weapons in 2003,” he reviewed while considering Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs. Yet “[n]ever did I think the Iraqi chemical or biological weapons were an imminent threat to the United States in 2002. Saddam had ample opportunity to use them on the U.S. for over a decade and did not,” he sanguinely concluded.

“As to nuclear weapons, Iraq had demonstrated its ability to create a large, covert nuclear weapons development program in 1991. CIA had demonstrated its inability to notice such a large program,” Clarke contrasted. Nonetheless, he overconfidently believed that continuing intelligence monitoring, nuclear inspections, and import controls could contain Iraqi proliferation attempts. Hereby he wrote:

The means to deal with that risk were present, however, in intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, active control of Iraqi imports related to nuclear development, and the use of other nations’ intelligence services.

With respect to debates over Iraqi links to Al Qaeda and other terrorists, Clarke again cavalierly overlooked significant ties. “If there were evidence of Iraq giving funds or safe haven to al Qaeda before the invasion, the Administration would have produced it,” he wrote, and contrasted more disturbing support for Al Qaeda in other Middle East countries. “There is, of course, evidence that Iran provided al Qaeda safe haven before and after September 11,” he noted, and he likewise detailed the funding Al Qaeda received from various Saudi Arabian individuals and charities. Nevertheless, “[a]ny Iraqi ‘link’ to al Qaeda is a minor footnote when compared to the links with other regimes, and none of the possible ‘links’ between Iraq and al Qaeda rise to the level of noteworthy assistance and support.”

Clarke’s complicated, often unconvincing assessments of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship belie oft-made claims that “Bush lied” America into the Iraq war. As conservative writer Victor Davis Hanson wrote in 2013 on the war’s tenth anniversary, a broad, bipartisan American majority had wanted to overthrow Hussein, particularly as international WMD inspections in Iraq faltered. This consensus did not surprise, given his long record of developing and deploying WMD, supporting terrorists, brutalizing his Iraqi subjects, and endangering his neighbors in a strategically vital region of the globe.

By contrast, Clarke’s benign political assessment of Islam and his support for development programs in Pakistan and regime change in post-Taliban Afghanistan after 9/11 would have argued for regime change in Iraq. As Hanson noted, Americans in 2003 expected and initially got a quick victory over Iraq’s decrepit military, just as earlier limited American military support easily enabled Afghans to depose the Taliban. Only later did images of jubilation among Muslim masses give way to bloody, messy realities of highly illiberal Muslim populations wracked by their own internal conflicts and corruptions. As a forthcoming article will show, Clarke’s own writing demonstrated the necessity to pursue political liberalization within Muslim-majority countries only within a secure framework.

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