Clinton's Secret Wars: The Evolution of a Commander in Chief

Clinton's Secret Wars: The Evolution of a Commander in Chief

by Richard Sale

Hardcover(First Edition)



A popular yet polarizing force long after leaving office, Bill Clinton is still criticized by right-wingers as a president who was weak in his foreign policy. Veteran reporter Richard Sale takes us beneath partisan rhetoric and documents the learning curve of our nation’s 42nd President, showing his evolution as a strong leader on the world stage.

Using confidential sources in the administration itself, Sale reports on Clinton’s covert ops in such arenas as the Balkans and Middle East, revealing a leader who spearheaded the fight against Slobodan Milosevic, bombed Saddam Hussein, targeted Osama bin Laden, and prevented al-Qaeda from establishing a stronghold in the incendiary Balkans region. Ultimately, and revealingly, Clinton emerges at the end of his term in office as a tough-as-nails commander in chief in the same vein as Ronald Reagan. This “fly on the wall” look at a generation-defining leader provides an invaluable window into the presidency of Bill Clinton in the world arena.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312373665
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/13/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

RICHARD SALE is an award-winning journalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist who has written for The Washington Post and San Francisco Examiner. Most recently, he served as a special correspondent for UPI for 5 years. He is the author of Traitors and The Blackstone Rangers. He is currently Intelligence Correspondent for Middle East Times. He lives in Stamford, Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt

Clinton's Secret Wars





Summer daylight was fading outside the long, tall windows of the Lincoln Bedroom. Present were senior policymakers, gathered in the residence rather than the West Wing, because the residence has a side door through which cabinet members could enter without being spotted by the press. The mood in the room was gloomy and subdued.1 The White House serving staff was usually clad in their formal whites at such occasions, but this evening they had on somber, close-fitting black jackets. Their faces were grave. They moved silently among the senior officials, stopping now and then to bend a bit at the waist to politely extend silver trays full of tiny canapés, shrimp, and saucers of cocktail sauce. Few of the tense, unsmiling guests took anything to eat. Cocktails with gin, whiskey, or vodka were available but those who had a drink stuck to Diet Coke or club soda with cubes of ice. The air was tense. This meeting was not social, but top secret, and its agenda was a grim one.

President Bill Clinton was about to perform his first major act as the country's commander in chief: he was about to launch air strikes against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. It would be the first use of military force in Clinton's presidency.

It had begun with special assistant to the president Richard Clarke, a man of boundless energy who had a high forehead, thinning red hair, and hard, intense eyes. Every day those eyes fell on hundreds of intelligence reports, embassy messages, and translations from foreign media, forwarded to him from the White House Situation Room. It was on a Sunday in Junethat he spotted an item that froze his blood: an Arab-language newspaper in London was reporting that Kuwaiti police had foiled an assassination attempt by Iraq on the former U.S. president.2

Two months before, in April, former President George H. W. Bush had returned in a triumphant visit to Kuwait, the country where less than two years before, U.S.-led forces had routed formidable masses of Iraqi troops, sending them fleeing north in headlong panic. Bush had arrived in Kuwait City to receive an award from the Kuwaiti royal family and his reception had been hearty, tumultuous, and grateful. As far as anyone knew, the trip had gone off without incident.

Clarke was perplexed. He had been given no intelligence of the assassination attempt from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or even the Department of State. Clarke immediately picked up a secure phone and called the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, Ryan Crocker. Clarke asked Crocker if he had seen the item. Crocker said he hadn't and then chattered effusively about the exhilarating time Bush had had in Kuwait. And then suddenly a great light broke over Crocker. Surely, he asked, surely Clarke wasn't suggesting that he ask the Kuwaitis about the report of the plot? Clarke knew that under new rules a National Security Council staffer wasn't allowed to ask a U.S. ambassador to do anything, and after chatting a bit more, they ended the conversation.

But Crocker would hear a message even when it hadn't been said. On Monday, a sealed envelope lay on Clarke's desk. It was so sensitive that it could not be sent electronically from the Situation Room. Crocker had come through. There was no doubt—the Kuwaitis had foiled a scheme by Iraq to kill the former president. Clarke quickly called National Security Advisor Tony Lake, a brilliant, mild, bespectacled man who looked like a college professor. "Saddam tried to kill Bush," Clarke said.

Crocker had startled the Kuwaitis by saying that the United States already knew of the plot. He startled them even more when he demanded that the United States be given access to the prisoners. There were sixteen in all, but only two were Iraqis. Saddam's plan was chillingly savage. The Iraqis had been recruited in Basra and given a Toyota Land Cruiser, then driven into Kuwait thanks to a whiskey-smuggling ring. The Land Cruiser had been fitted to a bomb, and then the vehicle was to be driven to a place near the university in Kuwait City.3 The bomb would be exploded when Bush's motorcade went past. It had enough explosive power to level four city blocks. It probably would have worked, except for bad luck. The jittery driver of the Land Cruiser had gotten mixed up in a traffic accident, and Kuwaiti police discovered the bomb and began to make arrests.

Soon, teams from the FBI, the CIA, and the Secret Service were on their way to Kuwait. Clinton quickly demanded two parallel investigations, one by law enforcement, the other by U.S. intelligence. The U.S. team members were far from displaying the slightest trace of enthusiasm. Everyone knew Saddam capable of any kind of human meanness, a creature capable of killing the man who had humiliated him before all of the world, yet, in a surprising display of inertia, the team members felt they were wasting time on a wild-goose chase. Iraq's secret police operated with the greatest stealth and cunning. How likely was it, the U.S. investigators scoffed, that a Toyota Land Cruiser could be impudently driven all the way in over the Kuwait-Iraq border, packed full of explosives, and allowed parking in an area close enough to the route of President Bush's motorcade? Such a plan was clearly preposterous. It was true the Kuwaiti officials had confessions from the suspects, but who would put any faith in those, especially since they were likely the result of torture or coercion?

But as the U.S. operatives, known as spooks, began interviewing suspects, their attitude drastically altered. They were both amazed and disconcerted by the degree of technical detail the suspects divulged about the makings of the bomb. Finally, after hours of careful interviews, the U.S. forensic experts were led in to see the bomb itself. They went over it with great care, like doctors examining a patient, until they had no more doubts. The bomb's construction bore the same distinctive signature of other Iraqi murder bombs they'd seen. As Secretary of State Warren Christopher said, "It was the forensic equivalent of a DNA match."4

On June 23, National Security Advisor Lake, whose appearance belied his energy and depth of insight, had his usual Wednesday lunch with Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, a loquacious, disorganized former congressman, along with Secretary of State Christopher, laconic by temperament. Lake called Clarke. Clarke and one person from the State Department and Department of Defense were to develop a plan, a checklist for targets of retaliation.

The pressing question was what course of action should the United States take now that it had solid proof of a direct link to Iraq? A focused, frowning Clinton had to decide. Should the United States wait for the verdict of the Kuwaiti courts? Beyond any other consideration, a message of unmistakeable menace had to be sent to Saddam. Would the death of the suspects by hanging be enough to send a deterring message to Saddam? Air strikes would. But should the United States do it unilaterally or obtain prior approval from the U.N. Security Council?

Secretary of State Christopher came to play a prominent part in theoutcome. The decision was made to strike unilaterally. As Christopher put the case, "A plot to kill a former president was an attack on our nation." Working from a target list developed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA, Christopher argued that, out of concern for legal grounds, the strike should be limited to hitting one facility, the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police, in the Al Mansur district of Baghdad—a building that sat amid other tempting targets like the headquarters of the Baath Party to the south, the Mukhabarat Directorate, M-19, for covert procurement to the north, the Special Republican Guard headquarters, or the headquarters of the Air Defense Command and the like. Soon Aspin, Lake, and the imposing chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Colin Powell, appeared to brief Clinton. As they talked, Clinton stayed busy jotting notes on a small pad, peppering the DOD officials with questions: "Are we sure the evidence is compelling? Is this a truly proportionate response? How can we minimize harm to innocent civilians?" Clinton had even pressed Powell on what would be the best time to strike. Christopher had already said the strike should be made on a Saturday night, to keep casualties to a minimum.

Finally on that fateful late afternoon in the residence, Clinton, tardy as always, ambled into the Lincoln Bedroom and opened the meeting. All the heavyweights were there: Christopher; Vice President Al Gore, solid, imposing and hawkish; along with Lake and Powell. As head of the Joint Chiefs, it would be Powell who would lead the secret meeting. Powell at that time stood at the summit of his public reputation, a figure of extraordinary renown. Whether it was in the Congress, in the White House, or in the media, he was seen as being perhaps the major player in Washington, his political skills, his canny knowledge, his effectiveness rivaling, if they did not overshadow, even the president's. It was widely said that it had been principally his generalship that lay behind America's stunning victory in the Gulf War, but in spite of that Powell was not a belligerent man. He never looked for a fight. When it came to the use of military force, he embodied a cautious sagacity that bordered on the timid. "The reluctant warrior," as one reporter had put it, and Powell had been deeply pleased. He had served in Vietnam and experienced its full bitterness. What pugnacious voices in the Pentagon or Congress saw as a quick victory, a sure thing, almost a pushover, Powell saw as something liable to be more difficult, bloody, heartbreaking, and trying to the spirit than anyone at first thought. Any military action was therefore not to be undertaken lightly. Generals moved to glory over long rows of graves. Instead, Powell believed that in foreign affairs a country should move forward like Frederick the Great, only after a detailed, careful, painstaking assessment of possible risks and rewards.

"I detected a common thread running through the careers of officers who ran aground even though they were clearly able," he said. "They fought what they found foolish or irrelevant, and consequently did not survive to do what they considered vital." He never forgot to "pay the king his shilling." He accommodated. He acquiesced. He advanced.5

His greatest fame rested on his Powell Doctrine. If a war became necessary, "You had to do it right," he said. "You've got to be decisive. You've got to go in massively. You've got to be wise and fight in a way that keeps casualties to a minimum." This seems perfectly sound, but it is also a way of hedging your bets. The doctrine provides an escape hatch, as a commentator once observed. "When the day of reckoning comes, you can always say, 'We didn't go in massively enough. We lost because we didn't go in to win.'" Powell had made grave errors in conducting the war against Iraq but they were only known and lamented inside the corridors of the Pentagon. Few outside knew of them.

Now standing before the Clinton heavyweights, Powell was about to "conduct a graduate level tutorial for a national security freshman," as he put it later.6 No one in the room had ever served in the military. The campaign had exposed Clinton as a draft dodger, someone who had gamed the system, employing the grossest deceit to manipulate it, and thereby escape doing military service, as had many senior American public figures like Dick Cheney, the Wyoming congressman who had been secretary of defense during Desert Storm. So initially the pairing of Powell and Clinton could have proved awkward. Not only had Clinton dodged the draft, but he had strongly opposed the Vietnam War. The thought that he had become not simply a president but commander in chief had been slow to sink in with Clinton. In the beginning the new president hadn't yet known how to give a military salute. When the time came, he would furtively touch only his fingertips to his bowed head, making nearby observers cringe. The matter was discussed by senior White House staff, and finally Tony Lake had been dragooned to talk to the president about it. Lake hadn't served in the military, but he had served in Vietnam as a Foreign Service officer, and senior staff had decided that Clinton's salute "came under the heading of national security." After their private talk, a new crispness entered Clinton's salute and remained there.

Now it was Powell's time. The Pentagon had already mulled over possible targets, finally settling on Baghdad. As Powell began, he was all courtesy and all command as he walked the new president through the proposed strike against Baghdad. The weapons would be cruise missiles. He went on to explain what the attack might achieve, what could go wrong, possibleIraqi reactions, and the decisions the president would have to make at each stage. Clinton had imposed only a few limitations. He wanted the weapons to hit Baghdad at midnight, so as not to fall on the Muslim holy day of Friday. He wanted to kill as few people as possible. On the stroke of 4:22 P.M., EDT, on June 26, 1993, 12:22 A.M., June 27, in Baghdad, cruise missiles were fired at Saddam's intelligence headquarters from a U.S. destroyer and cruiser in the Red Sea. As they soared away, smoke furrowing and spreading wide from their tails, Clinton was in the Oval Office at the old-fashioned desk made from the timbers of the British warship HMS Resolute, a gift from Queen Victoria, with the phone to his ear. Clinton had already consulted his counterparts in neighboring Arab countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, and they had been supportive. Clinton then called George Bush. "We've completed our investigation," he said. "It was clearly directed against you. I've ordered a cruise missile attack." Clinton closed the call by assuring Bush he'd done everything to minimize the loss of life.

"You'll be judged by whether you hit the target," Warren Christopher had said with typical bluntness. He was a laconic man from North Dakota who didn't mince words, and he was right.

Throughout the incident, the deeply scrutinizing eyes of Colin Powell had remained fastened on Clinton, wondering if the new president had the cold inner hardness required for such a strike, closely watching the president's behavior, his ability to concentrate and choose, assessing his control of his emotions.

Clinton had, at times, appeared to wobble. When he had first been given the target, his only comment was, "Well, this may teach him a lesson, but if it doesn't we'll have to do more."

As the operation went forward, and as Clinton made phone calls notifying congressional leaders, Clarke came in to say that the missiles had been launched. He was floored when Clinton asked, "Well, when will we get the pictures from the missiles?" Clarke replied the missiles had no cameras, but they would know from satellites the next morning about the degree of the damage.

"Why don't the missiles have cameras in them?" Clinton asked, a bit irked.

Clarke explained that if Washington were able to communicate with the weapons, they could be interfered with or diverted.

Clinton was appalled. "We can't communicate with the missiles? What if I wanted to turn them back?"7

Clarke grew flustered, stammering, "Because you can't ... there's no mechanism to."

But Clinton was about to go on television and tell the American people he had ordered Saddam's intelligence headquarters blown up. He needed some proof it had been. Clarke notified Lake, who called the number two man at the CIA, Admiral William Studeman. Studeman said they had to wait.

In the meantime, Clinton had called CNN on his own. The network had no one in Baghdad, but its cameraman in the Jordan bureau "had a cousin in Baghdad who lived close to the Iraqi intelligence headquarters." As stupefaction and horror spread through the room, Clinton said CNN had reached the man, and Clinton quoted him as saying, "The whole place blew up." So Clinton was sure enough of his results to go ahead with his TV speech.

CNN confirmed that twenty-three cruise missiles had crashed and exploded into the secret police headquarters, which was deserted at night. Unfortunately, one of the missiles went astray, killing Leilah Attar, Iraq's leading female artist.

Throughout, Powell remained impressed. Clinton, he felt, had "remained cool and resolute," he said afterward.8

Few at the Pentagon were impressed. To DOD officials the strike confirmed their worst misgivings and contemptuous suspicions. Military strikes "are not supposed to be a gesture," one said to me. "A military power consists of the power to injure on a large scale." Strikes were to kill and maim, destroy and lay waste. The purpose was to get quickly to your enemy so you could hit him and cause him excruciating, crippling pain. Clinton had responded, sure, but what had he actually accomplished? Killed a night watchman at Saddam's intelligence headquarters? To prove what? That Saddam could be targeted? After severely damaging most of Baghdad with a thousand-hour string of air assaults in 1991, surely Saddam knew he could be hit. "It was like watching a girl throw a softball," one disgusted former senior Pentagon official said to me of the operation. And the fact was that Clinton's election had filled his military critics in the Pentagon with genuine alarm. Clinton's retaliation on Iraq was not an auspicious beginning for men who belonged to a "can do" culture whose chief purpose was to blow up buildings and kill people. To them when you struck at an enemy you aimed to hit him with pulverizing force.

But the Pentagon carping overlooked a paramount fact: Saddam Hussein never again attempted a terrorist assault on any American anywhere.

CLINTON'S SECRET WARS. Copyright © 2009 by Richard Sale. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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