The American Prospect usually has all the honesty and deftness of a DNC press release. Over at “Tapped” (the Prospect’s weblog) a few days ago, Matthew Yglesias wrote that I have some nerve criticizing Bill Clinton for not doing more to fight terrorism in Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years when NR wasn’t urging Clinton to do more about the terror threat at the time. Matthew Yglesias musters an NR editorial after the embassy bombings and a few pieces after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole to make his case.
He writes of my criticism of Clinton, “So back before 9-11 can we presume that National Review was advocating an invasion of Afghanistan and condemning the Clinton administration for not undertaking one?” Then, he cites NR’s post-embassy-bombings editorial and writes, “As this fairly clearly shows, the debate at the time was focused on whether or not the Clinton administration had gone too far in combating al-Qaeda, and National Review, to its credit, supported Clinton’s position.”
This is a spectacularly tendentious reading of an editorial that clearly expresses contempt at Clinton’s reluctance to use force against our enemies. We defended Clinton against his wag-the-dog critics at the time, but in this way (emphasis added): “Congressional leaders were therefore right to support President Clinton’s action. The last thing Republicans should do is add to the inhibitions and hesitations of an Administration congenitally averse to the forthright use of American military power.” The editorial went on: “Launching 75 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the training camp in Afghanistan and the chemical-weapons plant in Sudan was, by Clinton standards, a strong performance.”
While we hadn’t yet drawn up the invasion plans for Afghanistan, you can see where we wanted things to go: “While he is a freelancer, bin Laden is dependent on the support of renegade governments, such as Afghanistan’s and Sudan’s, against which we have leverage. We can target his physical assets by military or covert means and his financial assets through other controls (as Mr. Clinton has also done).”
The administration exercised almost no leverage over Afghanistan; it didn’t even name it a terrorist state. It didn’t undertake military strikes against any aspect of bin Laden’s network ever again. And the targeting of bin Laden’s financial assets was minimal–we gave Clinton too much credit on this score.
Indeed, in retrospect our editorial was too generous. The “chemical-weapons plant in Sudan” probably wasn’t a chemical-weapons plant. The Clinton administration just wanted to hit two targets in a tit-for-tat retaliation for bin Laden’s bombing of two embassies. So the site in the Sudan was hastily chosen for symbolic reasons. It was the administration’s substitute for a sustained campaign of the sort NR advocated. “They reached down to any target they could get,” former General Wayne Downing, who commanded U.S. Special Forces from 1993 to 1996, told me in Legacy.
A top Clinton foreign-policy official confirmed as much. He explained to me: “I participated directly in the discussions and at the time two or three other targets were proposed in addition to el-Shifa. None of them had any basis for proceeding, but the chemical plant had this evidence of a presence of EMPTA, which is the precursor of VX and it appeared in soil samples, which the Agency felt with reasonable confidence came from close enough to the plant. So we thought, ‘Okay, there was enough of a chance there.’ And [Sandy Berger’s] reason, which I accepted at the time and still accept, was that it could turn out that if this place made VX, and terrorists in Europe, the United States, or the Middle East killed a large number of people as a result, then if we had an opportunity to do what we did and didn’t, we would have been subject to the same degree of criticism as we were when we did do it. I think we were lucky, because fortunately only one person was killed in the attack. But I argued very strongly against the other targets.”
Then, Yglesias criticizes NR for only writing about the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in a major way three times. Fair enough, but he leaves out of his extensive account of NR’s coverage of the Cole, this, our main statement of editorial policy on the matter:
“The Cole may not be the equivalent of Desert One, a debacle that symbolizes a perilous decline of American power. But the backdrop to the attack is troubling nonetheless. Such a sophisticated terrorist operation typically depends on well-developed networks for support, and that no word had trickled out to U.S. intelligence is another sign of declining American prestige in the region. The Gulf War coalition against Iraq has almost entirely collapsed, and America’s credibility has been frayed by its periodic and ineffectual cruise-missile attacks against Saddam. To restore America’s reputation in the Gulf, the next president will have to adopt a tougher strategy toward the Iraqi regime. But it would be a good first step to hunt down the perpetrators of this crime, and send them swiftly to oblivion.”
After recounting other Cole pieces and leaving this one out, Yglesias writes, “That’s it.” I’m sure he’ll want to correct himself on this score.
In any case, no effort was made to send those responsible to “oblivion,” because, the former Clinton officials involved now say, there wasn’t enough evidence that al Qaeda was responsible. This is dishonest excuse-making. “I don’t think there was much question to most people who looked at the Cole that this was al Qaeda,” a former Clinton defense official told me. “I was comfortable that it was al-Qaeda. There was no doubt about it–the level of expertise, everything, pointed to al Qaeda. It may have been a case of people looking for a higher standard of proof. Maybe that’s the weasel way out–if it’s just too difficult.”
In Legacy, I write that the political culture as a whole didn’t take terrorism seriously enough in the 1990s (see p. 24)–and NR surely could have written more. But this is an area where the country could have used some presidential leadership, and, of course, it got none. The Clinton White House knew more about the threat from al Qaeda than most anyone else in the country. This is one of the premises of former Clinton NSC staffers Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon’s book, The Age of Sacred Terror, which is supposed to be a defense of Clinton policy but often reads like a condemnation. Over and over gain, they write that the Clinton administration knew about the threat. They just couldn’t manage to do anything about it.
“We urgently understood the U. B. L. threat,” a former Clinton official told me, confirming the Benjamin and Simon account. “There have been former Clinton people on background, saying ‘Jeez, we didn’t know the threat was that bad.’ And my answer is, ‘Bull—-, we didn’t.’ The people who were involved in that knew that this was a really big deal. Should we have taken more chances? That’s a legitimate question. But it’s not legitimate for anyone who worked in the Clinton administration and tackled some of these issues to pass this off and say, ‘We didn’t know it was that bad.’ We did.”
If Clinton had decided to fight terrorism in a sustained way, NR–as these editorials demonstrate–would have cheered him on and urged him to do more. But he didn’t. That’s one of the Clinton legacies the folks at The American Prospect should honestly grapple with. But they don’t honestly grapple with much of anything.