People often ask me how they can learn more about national security and foreign policy — in particular, how the U.S. has gone so far astray in those critical areas of governance and leadership. The problem is, a good overall examination of these issues, an explanation for neophytes as well as political junkies, has been hard to find.
Richard Clarke’s new book, Your Government Failed You, is an insightful, comprehensive, and accessible guide to how U.S. security, intelligence, and military policies and practices got to where they are today. His groundbreaking Against All Enemies was an insider’s guided tour through the U.S. approach to — and failures with — terrorism, and established him as a reality-based voice long before such criticism was in vogue. In this current follow-up, Richard expands his sights, shedding light on our entire security apparatus, from the halls of power in Washington to the dusty alleys of Baghdad to the flood-ravaged streets of New Orleans.
The phrase "Who could have predicted . . ." has become something of a sarcastic running joke in the progressive blogosphere, reflecting the fact that far too often, problems are in fact predicted in advance, they just aren’t handled properly. Richard warned of the immediate dangers of terrorism before 9/11, he warned of the dangers of Iraq before the 2003 invasion, and now he’s warning us of future mistakes and disasters, aided and abetted by inertia, ideology, and incompetence in much of our national security apparatus. We would do well to listen.
In my book about my time as an intelligence analyst (which, full disclosure, is cited approvingly in Richard’s book and which, as many of you probably remember, he hosted a discussion of at this very site just a few months ago), I argued that the intelligence business should pay more attention to the track record of individuals and offices, rather than rewarding those who parrot the administration line no matter how often it’s wrong. Richard is a living embodiment of why that’s so important at all levels of the bureaucracy – someone with his experience, judgment, and track record should be running things, not being ignored or overruled by ideologues.
Beyond laying out the structures and processes of intelligence and security in a way that is both accessible to newcomers and still fascinating for experts, the book is tremendously engaging. It’s filled with anecdotes from Richard’s long career of civil service, from his first intel meeting as a 24-year-old staffer in Vienna to the early days of the Iraq war. The compelling narrative mixes entertaining insider accounts with edifying explanations of a host of complicated issues and problems, and the writing style will be a relief for those used to near-impenetrable nonfiction but digestible even for anyone more accustomed to summer thrillers. It also strongly affirms many of the values progressives hold dear – opposing torture and wireless warrants, demanding an end to politicized and partisan security processes, and much more.
Many readers will find Richard’s book something of a call to arms. He persuasively makes the case for participation in government, especially for those of us in the reality-based community, and his career is, frankly, an inspiration. Even in describing the barriers to entry in the national security world – difficulties I vividly remember experiencing when I decided to pursue jobs in that arena – he remains passionate and optimistic about our government’s potential for good. Not to go overboard with a self-flattering comparison, but I can relate to those sentiments. Even after having a very mixed experience working on Iraq for the Defense Intelligence Agency, and writing a book critical of my time there, I’m now spending this summer back (proudly, happily) working for the federal government. At a much higher level, of course, Richard is back in the policy world as an advisor to Senator Obama’s presidential campaign. There is vital work to be done, and as Richard notes in the book, it all comes down to individuals.
Perhaps most importantly, Richard doesn’t limit himself to explaining the problems – he offers point by point suggestions for making our national security processes work. Doing so wouldn’t be an easy task, but he describes many relatively straightforward adjustments that could go a long way toward improving the current situation. Roughly half of the book focuses on intelligence, with particular attention to terrorism and Iraq, and the other half details homeland security challenges, ranging from cyber-security to borders to energy policy. It is a manifesto that serves triple duty as a brilliant introduction for a layman audience, a treasure trove of information and anecdotes for those of us who follow these issues closely already, and, best of all, a blueprint for the reforms of the next administration.
Now when people ask me what one book they can read to better understand the current status of national security, the answer will be easy. Without further exposition, it’s my pleasure and privilege to introduce Richard Clarke, 30-year veteran of the Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council, and White House, and author of Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters.