Against All Enemies, by Richard A. Clarke: 11 Years Later

Against All Enemies - Richard A. Clarke

I've owned this book since the paperback edition was published but was moved to finally read it after seeing a documentary featuring CIA heads and analysts talking about terrorism before, during, and after 9/11. There was a lot of finger-pointing, blame or responsibility-dodging, and discrepancies. I remembered this book from 10+ years ago and thought it might be helpful to read, especially in light of the attacks in Paris.


Many blurbs for the book mention that it is a "thrilling" read, and it is as Clarke recounts the events of 9/11 from his perspective inside the White House. It feels like a movie, which made me uncomfortable. I don't mean Clarke goes out of his way to overdramatize or heighten the tension of the situation; it is naturally tense. But feeling like I was reading a thriller when it was a real life and tragic situation seems disrespectful. I shouldn't be "enjoying" the tension as I would a movie or work of fiction. This is not a critique of Clarke (though perhaps a little of the reviewers or the publisher who chose to highlight that element of the book), but a question about storytelling and narrative when it comes to recounting real life, national or global horror.


From the start I respected Clarke as a figure post-9/11. He seemed no-bullshit and critical of the Bush administration; he said things that made sense to me and that I'd suspected myself. Against All Enemies confirms or continues that impression. He details his experiences in relation to security and terrorism through three administrations (Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr.) and multiple positions. He doesn't pull punches but doesn't rant either. He manages also to make a history of al Qaeda and U.S. security and policy interesting and relatively clear, even to someone like me who has never followed the news too closely or liked politics and history. I didn't sweat it if I forgot a name or acronym; Clarke would remind you of a person's role or it wouldn't matter.


I came to feel like there are good people in government; their aims aren't always selfish or political. Unfortunately, many of those people and their ideas get rejected or ignored because of political agendas and "failures of the imagination," especially in the most recent Bush administration, according to Clarke. Many people quit in frustration after 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq.


In terms of bias, Clarke was clearly not a fan of Bush Jr. and critical of Bush Sr.'s administration as well. The exception is Bill Clinton, whose presidency Clarke feels mostly got it right except when Congress was distracted by stupid shit like Monica Lewinsky. For Clinton, al Qaeda and terrorism were a priority; for Bush Jr. they were not, despite repeated warnings from Clarke and CIA. I admit to my own bias here before I say that if Clarke is to be believed, this is not his political bias but an accurate assessment. The fact that Clarke stayed on through three presidents' administrations suggests he was valued by Republicans and Democrats alike. This book did make me miss Clinton and respect him as our best president of recent decades.


One concern that I wish Clarke would have spent more time on is civil liberties. He mentions them several times but does not elaborate on how they were being infringed upon and what about the Patriot Act(s) was problematic. I suppose since 2004 much more awareness and concern has been generated, especially post-Snowden and with continued attacks here and abroad by IS, raising fear and hatred toward Muslims.


Clarke ends with the recent Bush administration's responses to 9/11 and what should have been done instead. He predicts what would happen given the invasion of Iraq rather than a concentration on Afghanistan (and Iran), and some of his predictions have been proven accurate, such as the spread of terrorism. He notes that a big part of the battle is ideological as it was in the Cold War except we haven't come up with a compelling alternative to radical Islam; instead we've only helped radicalize more Muslims.


This book made me angry at the failure of the U.S. government to protect us before 9/11 and now.