When it was first published last August, Against All Enemies was known primarily as the book that called Bush’s Iraq invasion a stupid and expensive distraction from the more important fight against al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism and for accusing Bush and Condoleeza Rice of being asleep at the wheel in the weeks before the World Trade Center attacks. It is certainly those things, but it is also a ripping good read. Classifying the book as a Bush bash is to way oversimplify, but it does provide raw data for those who like their rants against the occupier of the Oval Office to be fact-based (as opposed to the currently popular type of ranting: the faith-based outburst).
Quite surprisingly, Clarke offers an unexpectedly fascinating look at the U.S. national security apparatus, how the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, NSC (the intelligence agency within the White House) and the NSA (the spy group within the Pentagon) work together (or not, as is often the case) to thwart terrorism and protect the public. Who knew bureaucracy could be so gripping?
Against All Enemies is primarily a history of counter intelligence activities in the last couple decades—a task Clarke is well suited for as he’s been dealing with terrorism and counterintelligence issues since Reagan was in office. He recounts how al Qaeda first came to be known to the intelligence community, and covers in depth some of the major security “events” of the ‘90s: how close we were to war with Iran in 1996 (pretty close), the bombing of the Atlanta Summer Olympics, the Clinton Administration’s response to the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and Clinton’s response (which the press wrote off as a Monica-diversion and Clarke argues was a sincere effort to take out bin Laden when they thought they had a clear shot), and how the Terrier-like tenacity of Clinton’s National Security Advisor helped prevent a major terrorist attack al Qaeda planned for the Millennium. He has little good to say about the CIA, Donald Rumsfeld or Condi Rice, and spells terrorist number one’s name Usama.
The chapters are sober, carefully narrated and rational, full of facts and interesting but relatively low-key first person accounts. The careful setup makes for much greater impact when the last two chapters are delivered. It’s here that Clarke launches an attack of the Bush Administration’s handling of everything pre- and post-9/11, and details the sheer lunacy and wastefulness of invading Iraq and calling it part of the “War on Terror” (this from a man whose solution to most problems was “How soon can we send in the bombs?”). These chapters are rational, and thoughtful too, but coming at the end of a book that was pretty moderate in its criticism, and laced as it is with a sense of righteous rage, it’s the equivalent of a roadside bomb on Pennsylvania Avenue: satisfying for the Bush detestors among us, but pretty frightening in its implications.
Clarke has no sense of humor (which actually makes the book kind of funny at times), hasn’t a shred of humility, and is possessed of a numbingly disheartening worldview in which military solutions are the only solutions, but his sincerity, commitment, and expertise are obvious. The events he recounts are at times frustrating and outrage-inducing, and his conclusions slightly sickening, but the book is nothing if not a great read. –Sara Isett