On Sept. 22, Bill Clinton came on Fox News for the first time to talk with Chris Wallace about his global initiative project on poverty, disease and climate change.
The interview began lightly with a discussion about how opportunities differed for Clinton between being President and a former President, but it quickly heated up after Wallace asked Clinton why he didn’t “do more to put bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business” while he was president.
Wallace would later plug his Clinton interview on Fox’s Weekend Live by saying: “You’ll see the good, the bad and the ugly. And there’s a little bit of all.”
The “ugly,” no doubt, is a reference to Clinton’s telling Wallace to “wipe the smirk off” his face and accusing him of carrying out a “nice little conservative hit job.”
Wallace’s question of Clinton seemed legitimate enough. But the way he framed the question itself is questionable. He tells Clinton that bin Laden gloated over the perceived frailty of the U.S. after we pulled our troops out of Somalia in 1993, and then he tossed in a mention of the 1996 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.
The suggestion here is that our withdrawal from Somalia emboldened the terrorists to commit these attacks.
Clinton rightfully scoffs at the implication, and smartly points out that many republicans wanted him to “Withdraw from Somalia in 1993 the next day after we were involved in Black Hawk down.”
I have no opinion about Wallace’s integrity as a journalist, but he was wrong to suggest that Clinton’s reaction to the question was “conspiratorial” when anyone who follows politics knows that Clinton gets a lot of flack from the right for not doing enough to capture bin Laden when he was president.
Clinton said he “tried and failed.” He certainly did try after the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassy in East Africa, when his administration attempted, though somewhat haphazardly, to deal with bin Laden by bombing terrorist installations in Afghanistan and a supposed chemical-weapons factory in Sudan.
The intelligence turned out to be off, and the plan was botched. But to say Clinton did not try to kill bin Laden or that the Republicans were more vigorous about catching him is nothing less than historical revisionism.
Clinton has also been jabbed by right-wing pundits for not doing enough after the U.S.S Cole was attacked in 2000.
The fact is, Clinton didn’t have much time to respond as he was close to leaving office.
And from the time George W. Bush took office in 2000 to Sept. 11, 2001, his administration essentially sat on their hands.
What is more damaging? The Bush administration failed to act, according to the 9/11 commission report, on an August 2001 CIA memo warning of an impending attack by bin Laden that involved “hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.”
Criticizing Clinton, therefore, seems to be nothing more than an underhanded way of making Democrats seem weak on terrorism and Republicans strong, while also deflecting criticism of President Bush for his own failure to get bin Laden prior to and after 9/11.
Few people in our government, including the GOP, were as Osama-obsessed as they now claim Clinton should have been.
Glenn Greenwald, author of the New York Times best-selling book “How Would a Patriot Act?,” makes this point convincing when he wrote in a recent blog: “The 2000 Republican Party Platform contains 13 specific criticisms of the Clinton Administration’s foreign and military policies.
Not a single one mentions or refers in any way to Al Qaeda or terrorism generally.
After that, there is an entire section entitled ‘The Middle East and Persian Gulf’ that deals extensively with Iraq and the alleged threat posed by Saddam Hussein, but it does not say a word – not a single word – about Islamic extremism, Al Qaeda, or Osama bin Laden.”
Furthermore, when Clinton was president, a lot of anti-terrorism legislation he pushed for was criticized by certain members of the GOP.
In July 1996, he struggled to pass his anti-terrorism legislation, which would bolster, among other things, airline security, and though the legislation was ultimately passed, it was stymied by the Republican-controlled Congress over a portion of the bill that called for chemical markers in explosives that could help track terrorists, which Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee called a “phony issue.”
Another piece of the legislation they opposed would have granted the government power to wire-tap suspected terrorists.
And when the administration created the Commission on Aviation, Safety, and Sec urity (the Gore Commission), which proposed increased implementation of airline security American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank had this to say about the cost of security: “Given the paucity of information on benefits, we can develop a scenario based on the assumption that the threat from airline terrorism is completely eliminated.”
So while some in the media try to spin Clinton’s record in dealing with bin Laden and terrorism in general, his record shows he did exactly what he said, even if he ultimately failed to capture bin Laden.
This is what Americans should keep in mind as the midterm elections roll around, and especially in 2008, when Republicans will no doubt try to cast Democrats as being soft on terrorism.