The fruits of an unserious presidency

Bill Clinton is desperate to be remembered by history for something other than the Lewinsky affair, perjury, and impeachment. And he will be. It’s becoming clear that the Clinton legacy will also include eight years of inaction, broken by rare instances of ineffectual action, towards the mounting threat posed by Osama bin Laden and other Islamic terrorists that culminated in 9/11.

That this prospect horrifies Clinton is evident from the rough transcript of the former president’s interview with Chris Wallace. Clinton has no defense for his feckless response to the mounting terrorist threat other than the honest and very limited defense that he just didn’t imagine these guys could successfully attack us on large-scale at home. Clearly that defense won’t do, so instead he lashes out at Wallace, Fox News, ABC, and the “right-wing.” Somehow, I don’t think history will be very impressed with this sort of flailing, or with all of the meaningless inside baseball Clinton tosses around (e.g., “the CIA was run by George Tenet who President Bush gave the medal of freedom to and said he did a good job”).

Nor will the fact that President Bush was slow off the mark help Clinton. First, failures by one administration do not excuse failures by another (although they would help support the honest defense that Clinton is unwilling to make — that it was difficult to comprehend the true extent of the threat). Second, Bush was in a position to create a post-9/11 legacy of fighting terrorism and he’ll be remembered for that legacy. Clinton’s effort to pull Bush down with him is a fool’s errand.

The inescapable fact is that Bill Clinton, for all of his strengths, gave the country an unserious presidency, and it turned out (not surprisingly) that we needed more. Clinton savored the popularity that came with that presidency, but now he must live with its unfortunate and unflattering legacy.

JOHN AGREES: That’s right. I’d go farther in defense of President Bush, too. The record is clear that he believed more effective, definitive action needed to be taken against al Qaeda and ordered a plan for such action to be prepared early in his Presidency. As I recall, such a plan was either just complete or almost so, when the terrorists struck first. Also, while one can argue that Bush didn’t act aggressively enough soon enough, he didn’t pass on an opportunity to collar bin Laden, as Clinton did. How do we know this? Clinton said so, and you can listen to him say it here.

Clinton, addressing an audience on Long Island on February 15, 2002:

We’d been hearing that the Sudanese wanted America to start dealing with them again.

They released him. At the time, he had committed no crime against America so I did not bring him here because we had no basis on which to hold him, though we knew he wanted to commit crimes against America. So I pleaded with the Saudis to take him, ’cause they could have. But they thought it was a hot potato and they didn’t and that’s how he wound up in Afghanistan.

The astonishing thing about this is that February 1996 was not only after the first World Trade Center bombing–which Clinton never responded to in any meaningful way–it was also after the “Bojinka” plot to blow up eleven American airliners simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean was discovered and, just barely, foiled. The idea that we had no basis on which to “hold” Osama bin Laden is ludicrous, but indicative of the legalistic mindset that hobbled the Clinton administration in its efforts, such as they were, to deal with the threat of Islamic terrorism.


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