Past Imperfect

Yesterday, National Review Editor Rich Lowry struck back against my earlier critique of his efforts to blame the Clinton administration for the September 11 terrorist attacks. Lowry, you see, has a new book out called Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years, and his magazine's Web site has been running Legacy-themed articles ever since the book's release. In one such article he took a break from the thankless task of criticizing Bill Clinton's economic record to allege that the Democrats had been soft on terrorism when they were in the White House. It's a pretty serious charge, so I took a look at the National Review's Clinton-era terrorism coverage and found it a bit wanting: one editorial supporting the administration's response to the bombing of our embassies in Africa and a few desultory mentions of the USS Cole. If Clinton was so terrible, I asked, why couldn't Lowry and his employees see it at the time? In response, Lowry accused The American Prospect of having "all the honesty and deftness of a [Democratic National Committee] press release."

Lowry criticizes my summary of the National Review's coverage of the USS Cole incident for leaving out the publication's "main statement of editorial policy on the matter," which, among other things, urged the president to "hunt down the perpetrators of this crime, and send them swiftly to oblivion." Lowry says he's sure I'll want to correct myself on this score.

Indeed I do. In looking for National Review pieces on the bombing of the Cole, my Nexis search did not reveal the article to which Lowry refers. Revising my search to look for documents containing the words "Cole" and "oblivion," I see the article in question -- an item from the Nov. 6, 2000, issue. It was an honest error, and for that I apologize. I also found another article that hadn't turned up in my original search -- a piece by Andrew Bacevich in the Nov. 20 issue of the same year. Bacevich did, indeed, criticize the Clinton administration's response, but not by calling for a more vigorous campaign against terrorism:

Placing the Cole incident in its proper context -- seeing it not as a cowardly, senseless attack on peacekeepers but as part of an ongoing challenge to U.S. power -- exposes as fanciful the reigning precepts of Pentagon strategy. The key now is to restore a sense of realism to U.S. military policy, and that requires questioning the imperial presumption that places warships like the U.S.S. Cole in unnecessary danger in the first place.

Apparently moral clarity in the fight against terrorism only came into vogue on the right recently.

All this aside, my larger point still stands. Clearly, in retrospect, every American wishes that the Clinton administration had taken more vigorous steps to counter the threat from al-Qaeda, just as we wish that the Bush administration had done so. After all, an invasion of Afghanistan before 9-11 might well have prevented the most deadly terrorist attack in history.

The question I sought to raise, however, was not whether America's pre-9-11 counterterrorism policy looks flawed in retrospect -- it obviously was -- but whether the editors of the National Review were urging that the Clinton administration do anything substantially different at the time. A search through the magazine's archives rather clearly reveals that they did not. Indeed, the fact that their self-described "main statement of editorial policy on the [Cole] matter" consists of a single paragraph -- the 11th -- of an 18-paragraph summary of the week's events shows that writing about terrorism was not exactly the magazine's priority back in 2000.

Mention of the Cole bombing was buried beneath such items as a defense of racial profiling, a condemnation of Dick Cheney's relatively moderate views on homosexuality, a lament on the weakness of Rick Lazio's New York Senate campaign and a plug for a pro-voucher ballot proposition in California. All of which, one can assume, the National Review thought to be of greater importance than the terrorist attack.

Not only was the National Review's coverage minimal, it was completely lacking in substance. What was the magazine's advice to the Clinton administration? Catch the perpetrators. Well, of course. But how? At the time, Lowry had nothing to say on the subject. And his publication -- hardly inclined to give Clinton a free pass on most other topics -- didn't revisit the question of how to respond to the threat made apparent by the bombing of the Cole until after 9-11.

The main point of my initial post was that the National Review had, in fact, supported the Clinton administration's main military effort against al-Qaeda, the very same 1998 cruise-missile strikes that conservatives are now so eager to mock as weak and ineffectual. Lowry responds to this by changing the subject. He notes that the magazine's editorial "expresses contempt at Clinton's reluctance to use force against our enemies." This, however, was a general statement about foreign policy writ large, not a specific attack on the administration's reluctance to use force against al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Indeed, the general theme of the editorial seems to be that Clinton's response to the embassy bombing was a welcome exception to a foreign-policy record that the magazine generally deplored.

Lowry then goes on to make the case that one of the targets of the 1998 missile strike -- an alleged chemical-weapons plant in Sudan -- was not, in fact, a chemical weapons plant at all. Most people would agree that Lowry is right on this count, but it is still a purely retrospective critique, rather than something Lowry was upset about at the time. Furthermore, he says that the Clinton administration should have added Afghanistan to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a measure that his publication did not advocate before 9-11. Presumably the National Review did not advocate this measure for the same reason Clinton didn't: The Taliban was not the recognized government of Afghanistan at that, or any other, moment -- and the official government, headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani, was not sponsoring al-Qaeda. I cannot say whether Lowry's decision to omit this rather crucial detail from his retrospective indictment of Clinton reflects ignorance or dishonesty, so I'll extend to him more generosity than he granted me and suspend judgment.

In my original post, I expressed a reluctance to play the 9-11 blame game, and I stand by that reluctance. If the Bush officials are right about anything, it's their repeated assertions that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon changed the way all of us -- liberal and conservative -- look at the threat of terrorism. In the wake of that event, it was clear to me -- as it was to Rich Lowry, as it was to the president, as it was to the editors both the National Review and The American Prospect -- that an invasion of Afghanistan would be necessary.

Before that day, however, an invasion -- whether mounted by Bill Clinton or George W. Bush -- would have been both pragmatically unthinkable and politically impossible. Conservatives didn't spend the Clinton years calling for an invasion of Afghanistan, and liberals didn't spend the first months of Bush's presidency calling for an invasion of Afghanistan. No one -- and that includes the prescient folks at the National Review -- was calling for an invasion of Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, because Lowry wants to play the culpability game, let me suggest that an accusation of weakness on terrorism can be more plausibly pointed at the pre-9-11 Bush administration than at Clinton's. By all indications, Bush, upon entering office, actually reduced the priority given to fighting terrorism from a level that was, in retrospect, already inadequate. According to Time, Clinton officials developed, in the waning days of their administration, a plan for combating al-Qaeda more vigorously, but -- wanting to avoid sticking the incoming administration with a policy it had not designed -- they delayed implementing the plan and instead passed the matter on to the incoming national-security team. Bush's aides didn't get around to discussing these anti-terrorism efforts at the highest levels until September 2001. A Washington Post account that's much kinder to the administration still notes that only one or two issues are important enough in any administration to reach the level of foreign-policy principle and, before 9-11, "terrorism did not make that cut" for Bush officials. Instead, the Bush White House made the construction of a ballistic missile shield its top priority, using a May 2001 address at the National Defense University to focus on the subject -- an address in which the word "terrorism" does not appear. Perhaps Clinton should be criticized for putting too much faith in the good judgment of his successor.

Earlier that summer, the Bush administration, seeking to do a favor to its pals in the oil industry, moved to relax sanctions against terrorism sponsors Iran and Libya, an initiative that was abandoned only in the face of massive congressional opposition. One could continue in this vein. But unlike Lowry, I don't think pinning the blame for 9-11 on Clinton or Bush is a productive exercise -- or one that reflects a rigorous and accurate understanding of the way the last 10 years of history unfolded.

The fact remains that until 9-11, both during and after the Clinton administration, neither George W. Bush, nor the Republicans in Congress, nor their friends at the National Review were making the sort of complaints about America's counterterrorism policy that we hear from them today. A calm, honest, nonpartisan examination of how the country might have done better under both presidents -- not to mention our current leader's father -- would be a valuable contribution to the subject. Lowry's hypocritical partisan sniping might help sell copies of his book, but it distracts from serious considerations of how best to defend the country.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow.

CORRECTION: This article originally made reference to the "sinking" of the USS Cole. The ship was bombed, but did not sink.

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