Critical Thinking: Richard Clarke leads one of his Harvard Kennedy School national security classes in a crisis simulation exercise.
"Spotlight: Richard Clarke"
Newsletter Article, Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Richard Clarke, a Belfer Center faculty affiliate, grew up in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood in a home where the family read newspapers together, watched the news, and often discussed world events and the military. His father spent four years in the Pacific, and talking with his dad about his experiences and national news was part of Clarke’s life from his earliest days. His increasing interest in government intensified the day in 1960 when John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States. Clarke was 10 years old.
“It was an exciting time,” Clarke says. said. “And it was a guy down the street getting elected that made it more special. Everyone in the neighborhood knew someone who knew someone who was a cousin. We felt a real connectivity with him.” Then, John Kennedy made his call to the nation: “Ask what you can do for your country.”
The next few years, as a student at Boston Latin – a school that stresses public service and graduated the likes of Ben Franklin, John Hancock, and John Adams – Clarke felt the call to serve his country more and more strongly. It was expected that students would go into public service. “It never occurred to me to do anything else.”
Clarke’s first venture into government began immediately after his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania. He got a job in the Pentagon in a management intern program that encouraged the new graduates to “wander around” the Pentagon and select several departments where they could work and learn. A year or so later, he was in Europe, where he spent months as part of the U.S. negotiating team for the Warsaw Pact. “I was 24-25, the junior guy on staff, but I was sitting at negotiations with Soviet diplomats and living in spy central – Vienna.” It was like being thrown into the movie “The Third Man,” he said, except it was real.
From those dramatic days in Vienna, Clarke has continued to serve in real-life dramas in the Pentagon, the intelligence community, and the State Department. He was assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs under Presidents Reagan and George Bush (senior) and served under the last three presidents as a senior White House advisor. He was the first member of the Bush administration to publicly apologize to the families of victims of 9/11, and in Against All Enemies and Your Government Failed You, he provides his views and insights into leadership and other failures that preceded and followed that day. Clarke currently is chairman a partner inof Good Harbor, a company that consults on a range of security issues.
One semester each year, Clarke returns to his roots in, to Boston and to Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) where “Ask what you can do” is the school’s charge to its students. As a faculty affiliate with the Belfer Center, Clarke teaches courses in national security.
Clarke and his colleague Rand Beers, who have taught together at HKS since 2004, structure their courses in a way that allows students to learn from the experience and insight of their instructors. Clarke believes mentoring is essential in government. “The system doesn’t work well without it. You get people in jobs without a clue, because there’s no textbook for a lot of this stuff. There’s a wealth of experience out there that people can pass down – but little way to do that. So I’ve always tried to find time.” As part of their courses, Clarke and Beers meet with students in small groups at dinner, a setting that encourages them to ask questions they wouldn’t ask in class.
Clarke, Beers, and Belfer Center Executive Director for Research Eric Rosenbach teach an HKS course this semester titled “Terrorism and the American Response.” The class focuses on the response of institutions – like the media, the military, Congress, and the legal community – to the 9/11 attacks. In addition to the historical value of this exploration, Clarke believes students will benefit by better understanding American institutions and things thatwhat influences them by looking at the last seven years. The instructors ask: “What happened and why did it happen and how did we do?” By the end of the course, Clarke, Beers, and Rosenbach hope that by looking at responses to 9/11, students will be able to make generalizations about how the institutions respond to crises in general, based on their responses to 9/11. Then .studentsThey willthen be able to determine how they might influence and improve institutions’ responses in the future.
Clarke’s students are exploring some of the questions he asks in his newest book, Your Government Failed You. He suggests that the failure of the government to prevent the 9/11 attacks and the mishandling of crucial national security situations since then – from Iraq to Katrina – are not just failures of the current leadership but are systemic. “The culture of mediocrity that is asserting itself in our national security apparatus increases the likelihood of further calamitous failures,” Clarke says.
The most important thing the next president needs to deal with, Clarke believes, “is not an issue, but a process…that allows for professional analysis of what the problems and the options are. Analysis in government has become a lost art. People are walking into issues and think they know the answers.” “That’s pretty arrogant,” he says. “They have preconceived notions and are not therefore taking analysis seriously.”
Clarke is concerned with the impact of government failures on young people today and their belief in the good that government and public service can do. “They’re frustrated,” he says, adding that the coming election is especially important. “If there isn’t change, I think they’ll walk away.”
As a realist and but also an optimist, Clarke argues in Your Government Failed You: “Government has worked in the past, and I believe it can again, if we can identify what has gone wrong in each area…and devise initiatives and programs to overcome the entropy and decay that has set in.”
Richard Clarke is doing his best to make that happen.
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