Politics & Policy

Footnotes to History

What? WHAT? WHAT?! And now: WH-WH-WH-WHAT?!

I was traveling yesterday and so missed the sequel to the story of Maha Marri, the absconded wife of an arrested 9/11 terror suspect. The Saudis are now refusing to let the woman return to the United States to testify, insisting that she be interviewed instead in Riyadh. It is unclear whether they even intend to permit the U.S. to interview her alone rather than with a local Saudi minder.

Even while she was still present in the United States, the Saudis lodged a formal protest against the interrogation of Mrs. Marri before a grand jury. Last summer, the Saudi Ambassador, Prince Bandar (you remember him: he’s the one whose wife was caught funneling money to people connected to the 9/11 attacks) wrote to Colin Powell to predict that Maha Marri would “assert spousal and other relevant privileges. Indeed, the judicial and societal concerns underlying the spousal privileges are particularly relevant to the case of a Saudi Arabian woman, like Mrs. Marri, given that in Saudi Arabia it would be improper for a wife to speak about her husband in the manner [suggested by prosecutors].”

Of course in Saudi Arabia, women are barely able to testify at all. But the pattern of behavior emerging from the Saudi embassy suggests that Prince Bandar is less concerned to protect the sanctity of the Saudi family than to conceal the connection between Saudi society and al Qaeda terrorism.

Susan Schmidt’s report is a masterpiece of cool indignation. Read it.

Not Exactly a New Clinton Low, but …

When the Monica Lewinsky story exploded in early 1998, it knocked off the front pages the Senate’s investigation of the Democratic party’s violations of campaign-finance laws in 1996. Jay Leno joked: “How typical of Bill Clinton – to distract attention from a scandal with another scandal.”

And as an ex-president, Clinton still seems determined on pushing the limits of personal misconduct. Last night he was on Larry King’s program, vehemently criticizing President Bush’s tax cut. It’s not the first time that Clinton has attacked his successor – in fact, he’s now done it often enough that it becomes easy to forget that he’s smashing a taboo here.

Retired presidents never used to speak ill of presidents in office, except during campaign season – and even then, with great restraint. The first President Bush spoke at the Republican convention of 1996 of how it broke his heart to see the White House sullied with scandal – but that was the only time he ever referred negatively to Clinton and even then he did not mention him by name. Even Jimmy Carter, managed to control his resentment and avoid comment on current events so long as Ronald Reagan was in office. (He slipped the leash after that.)

But like so many of Clinton’s schemes and shenanigans, this one is bound to backfire. The recompense that former presidents get in return for their statesmanlike silence is an unofficial media amnesty. The press stops reporting on their conduct in office, and passes the task of assessment onto the historians and political scientists. But the more Clinton talks, the more he reminds me – and I am sure others – of just how many unanswered questions Clinton left behind.

The next time Clinton appears on television, I hope the interviewer will ask – not just Clinton’s views on President Bush’s tax cut – but also: So – why did Operation Desert Fox start in the middle of your impeachment trial – and why did it end as soon as the trial did? Why didn’t you visit the World Trade Center after it was attacked in 1993 – and why were your prosecutors so uninterested in investigating the possibility of foreign sponsorship of the attack? Oh and by the way: did your brother-in-law Hugh Rodham ever in fact return, as he promised he would, all that money he took in return for asking you for pardons for his felon friends?

Adlai Again

On the New York Times oped page this morning, Adlai Stevenson III, former senator from Illinois and son of the Democratic nominee for president in 1952 and 1956, attacks those who compared Colin Powell’s statement to the Security Council this week to his father’s presentation during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

As lapses of taste go, the article is not nearly so bad as Clinton’s interview. But it is bad enough to demand a blunt response. Three points:

(1) The younger Stevenson observes, “While his [meaning the father’s] appearance became the stuff of historical legend, he rarely talked about it with his family.” One possible reason for the elder Stevenson’s unwillingness to talk about the Crisis was that it brought him face to face with the Kennedy clan’s notorious lack of respect for him. The Kennedys notoriously disdained Stevenson as soft, weak-willed, far too liberal, out-of-date. (According to Chris Matthews’ interesting study of Kennedy and Nixon, Kennedy told friends in 1960 that if Stevenson defeated him for the Democratic nomination, he would have voted for Nixon).

Stevenson’s liberal supporters in turn loathed John F. Kennedy. They thought Kennedy was too ruthless, too hawkish, and too openly contemptuous of their hero. The mutual dislike between Kennedy and Stevenson is the reason that President Kennedy named Stevenson as his ambassador to the UN, rather than (say) Secretary of State or Justice of the Supreme Court: Kennedy seems to have thought Stevenson and the UN deserved each other.

(2) The younger Stevenson complains that while Powell went to the UN to threaten war, his father went in October 1962 to “wage peace.” That’s a very odd way to put it. President Bush’s policy toward Iraq may or may not be wise and just. But it’s just ridiculous to suggest that it is more bellicose than Kennedy’s threat to launch global thermonuclear war unless the Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba.

(3) In the course of his article, the younger Stevenson delivers a personal reminder of why his family name has come to symbolize liberalism at its goofiest and most irresponsible. Listen to this:

“Whether made by al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein, today’s threats require a multidimensional response, including efforts to address the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the horrible conditions in which most people around the world struggle to survive. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a good place to start. The United States loses credibility when perceived as supporting terror in one part of the Mideast, while professing to fight it elsewhere.”

Insofar as one can detect any meaning at all in that verbal soup, it seems to suggest that Stevenson III regards Israel as a state that can (and maybe should) be perceived as “terrorist.” I can’t believe that a former U.S. Senator could really intend to say something quite that ugly. But those familiar with the career of this particular former Senator can easily believe him capable of saying something just that foolish.

More Footnotes to History

After finishing the Stevenson piece, my eye wandered over to Nicholas Kristof’s column, which offers Ronald Reagan’s policy toward Libya as a superior alternative to President Bush’s policy toward Iraq. It’s nice to see the Gipper praised on the op-ed page of the paper that once so vilified him. (Happy Birthday, Sir!) But what are we to make of this:

“President Ronald Reagan wisely chose to contain Libya, not invade it –and this worked.”

Kristof seems to have forgotten that Reagan “contained” Libya by pounding it from the air, culminating in a massive bombing attack in 1986. Somebody please remind me: what did the Times say about the bombing at the time? And if, as I suspect, they savagely condemned it, doesn’t this suggest that the opinions about Iraq that we should heed are not those professed by the Times today – but those it will profess in, oh, 2019?


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