The war on terrorism is supposed to be the cornerstone of President Bush's re-election campaign. But his former counter-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, opened a crack in that foundation when he told the 9/11 commission, "I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue."
Running on the war on terrorism is getting harder for Bush. His leadership in that area is, for the first time, becoming a divisive and partisan issue—just like Iraq; in fact, because of Iraq.
Any assault on Bush's main re-election issue has to be taken seriously. The White House attack machine has shifted into high gear, pointing out that Clarke is on record praising Bush's commitment to the war on terrorism. "You cannot square Dick Clarke's new assertions with his past words," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Clarke's defense? Those past words were spin. "When you're on the staff of the president of the United States, you try to make his policies look as good as possible," Clarke told the commission. He told Larry King, "I knew before I wrote this book"—the newly released Against All Enemies, which takes the administration to task for its responses to terrorism—"that the White House [would] let loose the dogs to attack me. That's what they're doing."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has suggested that Clarke might be speaking out of guilt: "Mr. Clarke was clearly consumed by the desire to dodge any blame for the 9/11 attacks.... In my mind, this offers perfect insight as to what drove him to write his book." Frist called Clarke's "theatrical" apology to the families of 9/11 victims "an act of supreme arrogance and manipulation."
The White House suggested that Clarke may have been disgruntled because he didn't get the No. 2 job in the Department of Homeland Security. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said, "When he came to me and asked if I would support him with Tom Ridge to become the deputy secretary of Homeland Security—a department which he now says should never have been created ...—he said he supported the president. So, frankly, I'm flabbergasted."
White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett claims that Clarke is suspect because he once taught a college course with an adviser to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Bush's presumptive Democratic challenger. "We all know about his relationship with the top foreign-policy adviser to John Kerry," Bartlett said.
Or maybe Clarke is just trying to sell his book. Frist accused Clarke and his publishers of advancing the release date of the Clark book to make maximum gain from the 9/11 commission hearings. Frist called Clarke's behavior "an appalling act of profiteering."
The problem for the White House is that Clarke's story fits with other reports. Last year, Bob Woodward wrote in Bush at War that the Pentagon had been working for months on a military option for Iraq. The day after the attacks, according to Woodward, "Rumsfeld raised the question of Iraq. Why shouldn't we go against Iraq, not just Al Qaeda?" In Ron Suskind's book, The Price of Loyalty, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill says that Iraq came up at the very first White House National Security Council meeting, just 10 days after President Bush took office in January 2001. "From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go," O'Neill said in an interview.
Kerry has wisely kept his distance from Clarke and his book. After telling reporters he had "read a couple of chapters," Kerry said, "I think he raises very, very serious questions. My challenge to the Bush administration would be, if [Clarke is] not believable and they have reason to show it, then prosecute him for perjury, because he is under oath."
Clarke, also wisely, has kept his distance from Kerry. He told the commission, "I will not accept any position in the Kerry administration, should there be one—on the record, under oath." Under questioning by the commission, Clarke said that his true motive for speaking out was not guilt, not disgruntlement, not partisanship, not book sales. It was Iraq. Asked why his private testimony to the commission did not include any of his subsequent strident criticisms of the Bush administration, Clarke replied, "In the 15 hours of testimony, no one asked me what I thought about the president's invasion of Iraq.... By invading Iraq, the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism."
The most recent Newsweek poll asked Americans whether they felt the war in Iraq "has seriously distracted from the administration's efforts to fight terrorism." Forty-two percent said yes; 47 percent said no. Approval of Bush's handling of terrorism fell 8 points from February (65 percent) to March (57 percent).
Bush, meanwhile, has been trying to depict the war in Iraq as secondary to the war on terrorism. On March 19, the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, the president told the diplomatic community, "America is proud to stand with all of you as we pursue a broad strategy in the war against terror." He didn't mention Iraq for the first 14 minutes of a 22-minute speech. What about Iraq? "There have been disagreements in this matter among old and valued friends," Bush said. "Those differences belong to the past."
But Clarke argues that the war on terrorism was secondary to Iraq, and was therefore compromised by ideology and politics. That charge is a serious threat to Bush's re-election because it is becoming more and more believable.