WASHINGTON – Remember Richard Clarke, the presidential counterterrorism adviser whose hair was on fire about al-Qaida long before the Sept. 11 attacks and whose warnings of a threat from hijacked planes were ignored by the administration of President George W. Bush?
Well, his hair is about to burst into flames again. This time, it’s the threat from Islamic State that has him worried. “They’re well-organized,” he says. “They’re running cities and vast territory. We don’t know how much money they’ve stolen from banks or made from oil, but it’s more than enough. They don’t want to disrupt; they want to rule. We can’t let that go on.”
We should take notice. After all, this is the guy who famously resigned from government in 2003 after the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq (he recalls asking Donald Rumsfeld if he was joking when the defense secretary justified targeting Iraq on the grounds that there weren’t enough targets elsewhere). His opposition back then makes it all the more noteworthy that he now believes the United States has to go back into Iraq with advisers, trainers and airpower to deal with the aftermath of Bush’s disastrous invasion. Removing President Saddam Hussein was a mistake, but arresting the spread of Islamic State, which emerged from that original blunder, is a challenge that must be accepted.
That doesn’t mean he believes the U.S. should escalate to sending ground troops, as Sen. John McCain and others have advocated. “We know that doesn’t work,” he says. It would only serve to “stir up anti-American sentiment.”
It does mean, however, that the U.S. must hold its nose and cooperate with the Syrian dictatorship to take on Islamic State. With the Middle East on the brink of chaos, a triage of evil is required and Bashar Assad is, temporarily, a necessary one.
“Either we assume they won’t shoot at our aircraft because we’re helping them or we will coordinate with them and the White House will say we’re not,” Clarke says. “Anyway, it’s not getting into bed with Assad to call up Syrian air defense and say, ‘Those planes you see are our B-52s. Don’t shoot.’”
Today’s enemy is yesterday’s friend is tomorrow’s bombing target. The U.S. loathes Assad, and pushing back Islamic State may have the unintended consequence of helping the despot stay in power. That shouldn’t be a deterrent, Clarke says. The boost to the Syrian regime will be temporary, and a lesson of recent Middle East history is that the U.S. shouldn’t rush in to topple a dictator when there is no acceptable force to replace him – a caution that wasn’t heeded in Iraq, or since in Egypt and Libya.
Now chairman of the Middle East Institute and a consultant on cyberterrorism, Clarke looks much the same as he did in the early days of the Bush administration in his rumpled, light blue suit and black shoes with a lot of miles on them. At 63, he’s matured into his prematurely white hair; Clarke is proof that if you live long enough, everything old is new again.
Although Clarke says Bush clearly deserves blame for the Iraq mess, he also criticizes President Barack Obama for not forcing former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to accept a residual force after the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2011. At least Bush tried to stay on top of Maliki with teleconference calls a few times a month. Obama didn’t, which made it easier for Iran to control Maliki, Clarke said. Obama should have said, “Either accept we’re keeping forces there, buddy, or you get nothing,” Clarke adds.
Maliki’s refusal allowed the president to turn the page and “pivot to Asia,” and it also opened the way for Islamic State to gain ground. Clarke disagrees that it was the beheadings of two U.S. journalists that moved Obama to act. The president already had undertaken a review and was leaning toward engagement. Nonetheless, the murders made it easier for Obama to bring Congress and the news media on board. “Sad to say, but it took decapitation of an American journalist for American journalists to pay attention,” Clarke says.
How quickly the Washington story changes. Almost immediately after Obama announced he would take the steps to “degrade and destroy” the jihadist group, a new drumbeat emerged: Islamic State, however vicious, may not pose a threat to U.S. national security. Not so, says Clarke. Left unchecked, he predicts the group will continue to move like “a bat out of hell.” It has big ambitions and a growing ability to carry them out.
Clarke also says the U.S. needs moderate Sunnis to step up, perhaps through a U.S.-trained state police that would replace Shiite-dominated Iraqi government forces in the provinces. That would help restore credibility with the once-dominant Sunnis, mistreated by U.S. authorities after the invasion and alienated from the Shiite majority today.
“We promised Sunnis all kinds of things: salaries, jobs, self-rule in the Sunni triangle,” Clarke says. They helped fight the anti-U.S. insurgents during the so-called surge, “but then we left and Maliki, who never power-shared, stopped paying them, arrested Sunni leaders and took their arms away.”
Saudi Arabia, with its large air force and big treasury, could be the linchpin of the anti-Islamic State coalition being cobbled together by the U.S., Clarke says. The Saudis long subsidized jihadism but are now vulnerable to the monster they created. They should step up, big time.
Does Clarke feel vindicated now, his warnings about al-Qaida and his refusal to go along with Bush’s determination to invade Iraq having proved prescient?
“The only value to being right is if people act on it,” he says.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg View.