The revelation that former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger walked off with classified documents bearing on the Clinton administration’s response to terrorism raises questions. Some of those questions may be answered simply by thumbing through President Clinton’s autobiography.
My Life, is much like Clinton’s life–oversized, unabashedly self-serving and filled with contradictions.
But those curious about Clinton’s thinking on national security–and uninterested in his Arkansas childhood or the saga of Monica, Paula, Gennifer, et al.–need not spend a lot of time reading the 957-page memoir. His first mention of terrorism is not until page 574. Al Qaeda doesn’t appear until page 797.
Let me say for the record I’m no Clinton-hater. I met Clinton once and found him smart and charming. He did some good things in foreign policy. For example, he intervened in Kosovo and Bosnia–not because there were Weapons of Mass Destruction there, but for humanitarian reasons. That was the right principle then, and that it remains the right principle–although the humanitarian case for intervention was far more compelling in Iraq than in the Balkans.
Clinton implicitly recognized that. He signed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 making Saddam the one dictator in the world that Washington intended to topple. Again, I believe President Clinton was right to make that official U.S. policy, just as President Bush was right to implement that Clinton policy five years later.
Clinton undertook serious efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At Camp David in 2000, he persuaded then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to offer PLO leader Yasser Arafat virtually everything Arafat had said he wanted. Clinton writes that the deal was “so good I couldn’t believe anyone would be foolish enough to let it go.” But Arafat did. What Clinton calls “Arafat’s refusal to make peace” demonstrated that as long as Arafat wields power, terrorism against Israel will continue–and Israel will have no choice but to defend herself, not least by erecting a barrier to keep terrorists from strolling into Israeli communities.
Anti-American terrorism didn’t begin while Clinton was in the White House but throughout his tenure there were a series of escalating attacks that should have set off alarms: In 1992, terrorists attacked a Yemeni hotel quartering U.S. military personnel. In 1993, terrorists shot down a U.S. Army Black Hawk in Somalia and bombed the World Trade Center. In 1996, terrorists attacked Americans based at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. In 1998, terrorists bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. In 2000, terrorists attacked the USS Cole.
Only once, when he lobbed missiles into a tent camp in Afghanistan and a suspected chemical weapons factory in Sudan, did Clinton respond in anything that could be called a forceful manner. (It remains unclear whether the Sudanese factory actually produced chemical weapons–or only aspirin. Whatever the case, we should agree that when it came to Weapons of Mass Destruction, Clinton relied on the best intelligence available to him–as has President Bush.)
Clinton says he considered doing more–such as taking out a couple of al Qaeda’s terrorist training camps in Afghanistan to “show them how serious we were.” But surely, after repeated terrorist attacks the mission was not to “show seriousness”–a goal worthy of a public-relations executive–but to destroy all terrorist training camps that could be located before they graduated more mass murderers–a military/strategic goal worthy of the commander-in-chief.
In those camps, Clinton neglects to note, bin Laden would eventually train 20,000 terrorists. Most of those terrorists are still out there today, planting explosive devices in Iraq or planning to kill your family and mine here at home.
Clinton writes that he wanted to do more, but the Pentagon told him it was too hard to send in special forces. The CIA said it “lacked the paramilitary capability” to capture or kill bin Laden.
Somehow, I don’t think Winston Churchill would have been satisfied with such answers. I think Churchill would have said: “Get the job done or I’ll bloody well find someone who will.”
Failing that, Clinton might have ordered an overhaul of the CIA and the military, demanding that these institutions be re-structured to meet the challenges they were not prepared to handle. But that would have meant telling Americans: “I know you want that peace dividend. I’m sorry. We have enemies out there. We have to deal with them.”
Clinton writes that, at one point, he did consider a “large-scale bombing campaign of all suspected campsites or a sizable invasion.” But he decided “neither was feasible without a finding of al Qaeda responsibility for the Cole” bombing.
I simply don’t understand that. What about the bombing of our African embassies two years earlier? Did Clinton think the statute of limitations had run out on those acts of mass murder?
He doesn’t explain. And that’s not all he leaves out. He writes nothing about the radical ideologies sweeping through the Islamic world, nothing about Wahhabism and Baathism, nothing about the effectiveness of terrorism as a means to demoralize and ultimately destroy the free world, nothing about the strategies that can defeat terrorism and the hateful ideas that justify and drive it. In fact, in nearly 1,000 pages, he never seriously discusses national security at all.
Clinton does say he wishes he had killed bin Laden. But he seems to view bin Laden as just another name on his enemies list–Ken Starr in sandals and a turban.
That’s the main point that emerges after desperately searching for the Clintonian understanding of terrorism in My Life. Caught up in his life–his relationships, his ambitions, his appetites, his feuds–Clinton appears to have hardly contemplated the world-historic changes that were taking place during his watch.
Bill Clinton was, and remains, a brilliant and beguiling politician. But he was feckless on the issue that mattered most. That may have been because Sandy Berger and others misadvised him. Or it may simply have been that he got so caught up in teapot tempests that he failed to see the terrible storms gathering on the horizon.
–Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.