WASHINGTON — The conversation has changed. After two weeks during which Bush administration henchmen have pounded John Kerry for his purported fecklessness in matters of national security, the White House is now on the receiving end of accusations of real fecklessness in the face of the al Qaeda threat in the months leading up to 9/11.

Yet another civil servant has turned. Two weeks ago, it was Richard Foster, Medicare’s actuary, who recounted how he was threatened with firing if he responded to congressional requests last year for the estimated costs of the administration’s new Medicare program. This week, it’s Richard Clarke, who headed the government’s counterterrorism program during the Clinton and then George W. Bush administrations and whose new book recounts his increasingly desperate efforts to get the Bushies to take the growing prospects of an al Qaeda attack seriously in the seven months between W’s inauguration and the September calamity.

Clarke’s tale, as he tells it in Against All Enemies, reinforces the impressions of the administration that former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill conveyed in his own quasi-memoir, The Price of Loyalty. Both are amazed to discover that the nation’s new leaders — Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz — have come into office already determined to oust Saddam Hussein. Throughout spring and summer, Clarke tries repeatedly to turn their attention to what he sees as an increasingly imminent al Qaeda attack, only to hear Wolfowitz, in an April 2001 meeting, dismiss such apprehensions as a sideshow: “I don’t understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden,” Clarke quotes Wolfowitz as saying. The day after 9/11, Bush and Wolfowitz are back at it again — Bush insisting that Clarke try again to find an al Qaeda–Iraq link, Wolfy suggesting that the proper response to the deaths of thousands of Americans at al Qaeda’s hands is to go after Saddam.

The Bush administration is the first in American history that can properly be defined as ideologically obsessive. No matter the problem, this president has hewed tight to two ostensible solutions. To resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, thwart the spread of radical Islamic fundamentalism, put fear into the hearts of rogue states, diminish incidents of terrorism, bring democracy to the Middle East, end any looming energy shortages, and construct a new world order, the key was overthrowing Saddam. To bring jobs back to America, diminish a nasty surplus (remember that?), boost growth, jump-start a sluggish global economy, and unleash a boom so vast it would fund all the government we need, the key was cutting taxes on the rich.

And to adduce the same solution after it has been tried repeatedly and found wanting every time, or lacks all connection to the problem at hand, is to make statecraft of either mental illness or blind zeal. Or both — they’re not mutually exclusive.

Other presidents have done nothing when they should have done something, or pursued dubious remedies to real problems, but none come off as badly as Bush. No other president has responded to an attack on our nation by seeking war against a nation with no connection to that attack. But this is a president bound by neither precedent nor logic.

Willful blindness is not the easiest thing to document, though during Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld’s appearance before the 9/11 Commission on Tuesday, commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste did a pretty good job of it. After Rumsfeld had testified that no one had predicted anything like the 9/11 attacks, Ben-Veniste confronted him with eight instances in which terrorists seized or planned to seize aircraft with the purpose of smashing them into particular targets, instances that the U.S. intelligence community had documented before 9/11. Rummy responded that he hadn’t seen the list, since this was more a civil-aviation than a military matter.

The scandal here isn’t that Rummy missed it. It’s that Rummy and Wolfy and Condi and Cheney and the president were all obsessing about Iraq, as Clarke sounded ever louder alarms about the imminence of al Qaeda attacks.

Obsession, and its attendant imperviousness to facts, is not a crime, of course, but neither is it generally considered the best road to re-election. Clarke’s allegations, along with Foster’s and O’Neill’s, are damaging precisely because they don’t come from public officials with liberal agendas. Clarke and Foster have each served in administrations of both parties; they are professionals who just tried to do their jobs. O’Neill is an old-style Republican nostalgic for Richard Nixon who still believes in balanced budgets. They are hardly disinterested figures when it comes to the Bush administration, but as they tell their tales — and they tell them quite convincingly — their problems with the White House were almost entirely the result of the White House’s dismissal of data and indifference to fact. At least, when those data and facts did not fit into Bush’s and the neos’ political imperatives or obsessions about how the world really worked.

The president’s resistance to fact is a lemon from which his handlers have long made lemonade: They call it his “decisiveness.” And what’s not to be decisive about, when the data don’t matter a damn? Karl Rove and his crew have been demonizing John Kerry because he actually mulls things over before making a decision. Odds are, he’s weighing the evidence. Still, with much of the American electorate, decisiveness beats deliberation nine times out of 10.

That’s why Clarke and O’Neill matter. The president they served wasn’t really deciding; he was obsessing, and missing a great deal that he should have seen, that we needed him to see. Willy-nilly, they’ve redefined the presidential race into a choice between deliberation and deliberate blindness. That’s a contest John Kerry can win.

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