Bush, Clinton Varied Little on Terrorism
For all the sniping over efforts by the Bush and Clinton administrations to thwart terrorism, information from this week’s hearings into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks suggests that the two administrations pursued roughly the same policies before the terrorist strikes occurred.
Witness testimony and the findings of the commission investigating the attacks indicate that even the new policy to combat Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts, developed just before Sept. 11, was in most respects similar to the old strategy pursued first by Clinton and then by Bush.
The commission’s determination that the two policies were roughly the same calls into question claims made by Bush officials that they were developing a superior terrorism policy. The findings also put into perspective the criticism of President Bush’s approach to terrorism by Richard A. Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief: For all his harsh complaints about Bush administration’s lack of urgency in regard to terrorism, he had no serious quarrel with the actual policy Bush was pursuing before the 2001 attacks.
Clearly, terrorism wasn’t the main thing on the plate for the Bush team before 9/11–it wasn’t even #1 on the foreign policy agenda. Then again, they’d only been in office eight months and were seriously hampered in getting a team in place by the lengthy attempts by Gore and company to overturn the election results. Further, it now seems unlikely to me that the Bush team’s reaction to something like the Cole attack would have been as tepid as the Clinton response.
But Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, testifying this week in place of Rice, who declined to give public testimony to the commission, said there was “stunning continuity” in the transition from Clinton to Bush. “We made the determination under the guidance of Dr. Rice and the president to vigorously pursue the policy which we inherited while developing our own approach,” he said.
The Bush administration’s approach, which was in draft form by Sept. 4, 2001, did not differ substantially from Clinton’s policy. The commission staff, in the “key findings” it released this week, said: “The new administration began to develop new policies toward al Qaeda in 2001, but there is no evidence of new work on military capabilities or plans against this enemy before September 11” — a point on which Armitage concurred.
The primary differences in the Bush proposal were calls for more direct financial and logistical support to the Northern Alliance and the anti-Taliban Pashtuns and, if that failed, to eventually seek the overthrow of the Taliban through proxies. The plan also called for drafting plans for possible U.S. military involvement, according to testimony and commission findings.
It’s unclear to me what policies would have looked different behind the scenes. Clearly, there would have been no public support for launching a war to overthrow the Taliban simply out of the blue; that wasn’t on the table.
Former Clinton aides feel vindicated. Daniel Benjamin, a Clinton administration National Security Council official, said that “after seven months of chewing on it, they reached essentially the same conclusions as the previous administration” and did not have the funding in place to support more aggressive policies.
But Clarke, who was counterterrorism director for both Clinton and Bush, has been much more critical of Bush. In testimony this week, he said al Qaeda and terrorism “were an extraordinarily high priority” and there was “certainly no higher a priority” under Clinton. On the other hand, he said, “the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue but not an urgent issue.”
In fact, Clarke was constantly agitating for a more aggressive response to terrorism from the Clinton administration, including more significant bombing of al Qaeda and Taliban targets. The commission staff described him as “controversial” and “abrasive” and included an observation that several Clinton colleagues wanted him fired.
“He was despised under Clinton,” said Ivo H. Daalder, who worked under Clarke in the Clinton National Security Council on issues other than terrorism. James M. Lindsay, who also worked under Clarke, concurred that people “thought he was exaggerating the threat” and said he “always wanted to do more” than higher-ups approved.
Daalder and Lindsay say Clarke’s criticism of Bush is based on the administration’s emphasis, not its policy. “His criticism of Bush pre-9/11 is not necessarily that they didn’t have a good strategy but that they didn’t take the threat sufficiently seriously.”
It’s very strange to me that the Clinton folks despised Clarke, ignored many of his recommendations for eight years, the opportunities to act occured entirely under that Administration, and yet his anger is directed at the Bush team. I’m not sure what to make of that.