Softer on Terrorism?

Following September 11, many on the right made an instant pastime out of lambasting anyone who dared suggest that U.S. foreign policy might be partially responsible for the attacks -- "blame America first" thinking, as they liked to call it. Recently, though, conservatives have discovered the joys of blaming one American in particular: Bill Clinton. In the process, they have seized upon a spate of lengthy serial reviews in the The New York Times and The Washington Post examining the history of the hunt for bin Laden and painting a tableau of indecisiveness, uncertainty, and missed opportunities by the Clinton administration. Andrew Sullivan summarized the Times-Post case against the former president recently in "[Clinton] was more responsible than anyone for the gaping holes in national security and intelligence that made Sept. 11 possible. The buck must stop with him."

For a while, it almost seemed as though Sullivan's analysis was becoming conventional wisdom. Yet the serial reviews have rolled on, in their methodical way, so that finally the latest front-page Washington Post installment examines the Bush administration's own anti-terror accomplishments in 2001. And it turns out that compared to Bush, Clinton was practically Wyatt Earp. In fact, the latest Post article suggests a whole new line of inquiry: Did Bush, at a key moment, dismantle the Clinton administration's increasingly effective anti-Al Qaeda apparatus (which, though hardly flawless, was far better than nothing)? And on a related note: Would a less meddling Gore administration have been able to prevent tragedy?

Sullivan defends Bush in his article by emphasizing reports of a supposed Al Qaeda retaliation proposal that arrived on the president's desk, fatefully, one day before the attacks. "It was too late," he writes. "But it remains a fact that the new administration had devised in eight months a strategy that Bill Clinton had delayed for eight years." Yet the Post and other press accounts allow us to see that this is a ridiculous claim. Al Qaeda was not a static threat it took us eight years to discover; it was a rapidly growing cancer that only became terminal within the last few years. Clinton-bashers attempt to trace the beginning of the Al Qaeda era back to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, but bin Laden couldn't be linked to that attack until the 1995 arrest of Ramzi Yousef. And even then, he could only be classified as one of many hostile Arab terror financiers (as late as 1997 the Post still referred to him as a "wealthy Saudi businessman," not a terrorist). Real evidence of bin Laden's unique capability arrived only with the synchronized embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

At this point, the Clinton administration acted pretty darn fast, building up retaliation capability against a shadowy enemy ensconced in a no man's land in a politically hyper-sensitive region of the world. From 1998 onward, according to an earlier Post story, Clinton stationed two submarines in the Indian Ocean so as to be able to strike within six hours of reliable intelligence on bin Laden's location. The first 1998 cruise missiles fired into Afghanistan and Sudan reportedly missed bin Laden by just one hour. Looking to score political points at home, Republicans spun these attacks as a political ploy by the president to distract attention from the Lewinsky scandal; and the public, having just seen the eerily coincidental Wag the Dog, swallowed the spin. Nevertheless, Clinton authorized three more strikes in the next two years, though each was called off at the last second due to questionable intelligence.

Sullivan's 8 years/8 months defense of Bush turns on the assumption that what landed on the president's desk on Sept. 10 was an immediate panacea, the glorious final solution that had eluded Clinton all those years. But foreign policy initiatives are notoriously long-term projects. The Bush proposal, favoring what the Post terms "phased escalation," would have taken at least as long to implement as Clinton's policy, along a similar gradual learning curve of trial and error. Corners might have been cut if Bush's people had been willing to build upon the successes and failures of the Clinton administration, but they weren't. Bush abandoned Clinton's high-alert submarine operations, which, between January and September 2001, might have done the job. He fought against international anti-money laundering accords that would have helped track down Al Qaeda financial assets; he abandoned a CIA-trained Uzbek insurgency force; and like Clinton, he abandoned the Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.

In reality, eight months does not amount to a success story for the formulation of Bush's anti-bin Laden policy. Rather, it's a catastrophe. The latest Post story reports that when Clinton's national security adviser Sandy Berger sat down with his successor Condoleezza Rice during the transition period, he told her she was "going to spend more time during your four years on terrorism generally and Al Qaeda specifically than any other issue." In other words, this is a priority. But the Post also relates the story of Army Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick, a top National Security Council staffer who stayed with Bush through May:

He noticed a difference on terrorism. Clinton's Cabinet advisers, burning with the urgency of their losses to bin Laden in the African embassy bombings in 1998 and the [U.S.S.] Cole attack in 2000, had met "nearly weekly" to direct the fight, Kerrick said. Among Bush's first-line advisers, "candidly speaking, I didn't detect" that kind of focus, he said.

If Bush's advisers hadn't been so instinctively dismissive of all things Clinton, they might have had a policy within a month or two of Bush's inauguration, maximum.

Yet certain basic factors of Bush's foreign policy in the spring and summer of 2001 suggest that he was fundamentally lost to the Al Qaeda threat. The story of Bush's sacrifice of foreign policy before the shrine of missile defense has already been told, but we should remember that one area of that sacrifice was the Islamic fundamentalist threat. Bush's first budget increased counterterrorism funding modestly -- to $13.6 billion from $12 billion. When concerned House members tried to make up for this by shifting $600 million away from missile defense funds, according to the latest Post account, none other than Donald Rumsfeld demanded that Bush threaten a veto.

The only Middle East issue that the Bush administration apparently gave a damn about was Saddam Hussein. Throughout the spring the papers were full of reports of Colin Powell's efforts to tinker with Iraq "smart sanctions"; of Paul Wolfowitz's pining for a full-scale invasion; of a "Shultz/Weinberger" gulf opening between Powell and Rumsfeld on the issue. Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland started an April column thus: "President Bush is said to have empowered three administration working groups to think hard and devise one more new-and-improved U.S. policy on Iraq. Have no doubt: This means war." It's no secret why Iraq loomed so large: Saddam's continued existence was a stain on Bush's father's proudest presidential moment, the Gulf War. Dick Cheney, during the campaign, used to stop and take a deep breath before explaining his unique, impassioned antipathy for the enduring despot.

The attention to Iraq was commendable, as was the attention to China and other issues. But as we now know, the prioritization was all wrong. Bush should have been talking with submarine captains in the Indian Ocean and CIA chiefs along the Afghan-Pakistan border. He should have been memorizing Pervez Musharraf's name. And here's where we can easily imagine a Gore administration unhampered by these factors and capable of intervening before disaster struck.

Gore's foreign policy team would likely have been manned by Richard Holbrooke as secretary of state and Leon Fuerth as national security advisor. Both have demonstrated recently that they probably would have been immune to the two key factors which distracted the Bush team from the Al Qaeda threat: national missile defense and Saddam Hussein.

Holbrooke was pointing out that the dangers of Al Qaeda were more serious than those affected by missile defense long before 9/11. On a trip to Europe in the spring of 2001, the former ambassador called Bush's passion for missile defense "almost a religious matter." Robert Kagan, the conservative foreign policy writer deeply connected to and influential in the Bush administration, subsequently devoted a whole Washington Post column to mocking Holbrooke and questioning his loyalty. He quoted him sardonically: "'We have to ask ourselves,' Holbrooke exhorted the Europeans, 'in what way are we really threatened.' Osama bin Laden, he noted, has no missiles."

Fuerth, in turn, has risen to oppose the Iraq fixation; his last two op-eds in the Times and the Post were titled "One Terrorist at a Time" and "Not the Most Urgent Goal," respectively. Fuerth and like-minded thinkers, such as Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, have taken plenty of heat from influential conservatives, but their opposition to targeting Hussein has wisely prevailed for the time being. Would that it had been so in the summer of 2001, back when Mohammed Atta was putting the final touches on his plans.

In the final analysis, it appears that whatever his flaws, Clinton responded in kind to the Al Qaeda threat as it existed in his time. Yet Bush -- who presided through the summer of 2001 when U.S. embassies across the world were buzzing with word of an impending attack -- did not. It's all there in the Times and the Post, if you're willing to see it.