What Clinton Didn’t Do and When He Didn’t Do It

Richard Miniter uses Sunday’s dust-up between former President Bill Clinton and Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace to review the former’s record on fighting terrorists.

Bill Clinton’s outburst on Fox News was something of a public service, launching a debate about the antiterror policies of his administration. This is important because every George W. Bush policy that arouses the ire of Democrats–the Patriot Act, extraordinary rendition, detention without trial, pre-emptive war–is a departure from his predecessor. Where policies overlap–air attacks on infrastructure, secret presidential orders to kill terrorists, intelligence sharing with allies, freezing bank accounts, using police to arrest terror suspects–there is little friction. The question, then, is whether America should return to Mr. Clinton’s policies or soldier on with Mr. Bush’s.

An interesting framing, given that the consensus would probably–wrongly, in my view–lead to a return to the Clinton policies when put in this way. Violation of our basic principles, not to mention our treaty obligations, is a steep price to pay given the modest returns we’ve received to date.

Given that Miniter presumably wants readers to answer “Of course we don’t want to go back to the Clinton plan for (not) fighting terrorists,” far better to couch the debate in terms of aggressiveness abroad and general emphasis. Most of the rest of the piece does that.

With that in mind, let us examine Mr. Clinton’s war on terror. Some 38 days after he was sworn in, al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center. He did not visit the twin towers that year, even though four days after the attack he was just across the Hudson River in New Jersey, talking about job training. He made no attempt to rally the public against terrorism. His only public speech on the bombing was a few paragraphs inserted into a radio address mostly devoted an economic stimulus package. Those stray paragraphs were limited to reassuring the public and thanking the rescuers, the kinds of things governors say after hurricanes. He did not even vow to bring the bombers to justice. Instead, he turned the first terrorist attack on American soil over to the FBI.

Now, this is mostly unfair. In 1993, I was in studying for a PhD specializing in American national security policy. Most of us thought the debate over humanitarian interventions was the most interesting question of the nascent post-Cold War era, not counterterrorism. Still, it is interesting in hindsight how little attention Clinton paid to the issue, at least as evidenced by the public face of his administration.

It is fair to note that this lack of emphasis persisted well after it should have been clear that we were in the middle of something big. As Miniter notes, there were al Qaeda attacks or attempted attacks on U.S. targets every year from 1993 through 2001 and they were met by little action. More importantly, as Miniter fails to note but Michael Scheuer and others constantly remind us, al Qaeda openly declared war on the United States in 1996 and again in 1998 but we did not take it seriously.

There is much more to Mr. Clinton’s record–how Predator drones, which spotted bin Laden three times in 1999 and 2000, were grounded by bureaucratic infighting; how a petty dispute with an Arizona senator stopped the CIA from hiring more Arabic translators. While it is easy to look back in hindsight and blame Bill Clinton, the full scale and nature of the terrorist threat was not widely appreciated until 9/11. Still: Bill Clinton did not fully grasp that he was at war. Nor did he intuit that war requires overcoming bureaucratic objections and a democracy’s natural reluctance to use force. That is a hard lesson. But it is better to learn it from studying the Clinton years than reliving them.

Arguably, we’ve learned the lesson too well, with the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction. And, surely, a President Clinton would have mounted a vigorous response to the 9/11 attacks had he been Constitutionally eligible for a third term. But the record is what it is.

UPDATE: Lydia Saad (an acquaintance of mine and longtime friend of my wife) analyzes a new Gallup survey showing that the public blames Bush more than Clinton for the failure to capture bin Laden, although both get substantial blame.

According to a recent Gallup Panel survey, the American public puts the primary blame on Bush rather than Clinton for the fact that bin Laden has not been captured. A majority of Americans say Bush is more to blame (53%), compared with 36% blaming Clinton.

Gallup Poll:  Blame for Not Capturing Bin Laden

Clinton’s reputation in this matter is far from unblemished, however. A separate question in the Sept. 21-24 survey measures the degree to which each president is blamed for the failure to capture or kill bin Laden. Forty-two percent of Americans believe Clinton deserves either a great deal or a fair amount of blame, while only 32% say he deserves no blame. However, a larger number, 53%, assign a great deal or fair amount of blame to Bush for failing to track down bin Laden.

Gallup Poll:  Blame for Not Capturing Bin Laden 2

Frankly, I think “capturing bin Laden” is a distraction. Certainly, though, if we’re going to assign blame, it’s not unreasonable to assign more to the guy who has had five years during which bin Laden was a household name than to the guy who had seven years when the man was mostly in obsurity. Then again, it would have been far easier to capture (or kill) him before rose to cult status in the Islamist community.

UPDATE: Steven Taylor shares my reaction to the Miniter piece, wondering “How is it that the choice has to be between the general inaction of the Clinton of the administration, and the over-reaction of the Bush administration?”

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Public Opinion Polls, Terrorism, US Constitution, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    every George W. Bush policy that arouses the ire of Democrats—the Patriot Act, extraordinary rendition, detention without trial, pre-emptive war—is a departure from his predecessor

    Actually, extraordinary rendition was practiced under Clinton, though not I believe for its current purpose of sending people off to be tortured.

    And as JJ notes, detention without trial, for ex, isn’t exactly something to brag about.

  2. Only Nixon could go to China. It is an interesting alternate history question to wonder what would have happened if Clinton had decided that the first WTC attack would be the last and aggressively gone after AQ. Imagine the Bush administration with Clinton as the front man. He wouldn’t have started with the world sympathy that came after the 9/11 attack, but imagine if he decided his place in history was going to be the president who made terrorism as prevalent as piracy. Not that it would totally go away, but that it would be reduced to an extent the world hardly noticed it.

    Re-reading the news comments from the republicans during the time, their chief complaint when Clinton used force against terrorists or their sympathizers was he tended to launch the missiles when things detrimental to his public image would normally have been the lead (e.g. impeachment, Lewinsky testimony). In short, they favored a get tough approach. As the feminist reaction to Clinton having sex with an intern shows, Clinton seemed to be able to feed them a spoon full of BS and get them to smile while they swallowed it.

    Its an interesting ‘what if’.

  3. Anderson says:

    he tended to launch the missiles when things detrimental to his public image would normally have been the lead

    That was pretty much every day after the Lewinsky scandal broke.

    But it’s fair to guess that Clinton, or Gore, or George H.W. Bush, or Bob Dole, or pretty much anyone not impressed by Dick Cheney’s geopolitical prowess, would’ve done a better job than Dubya.

  4. Steven Plunk says:

    It is a waste of time to play the blame game. Clinton did what he did and we should not put blame on him for the 9/11 attacks.

    We can learn a little from history but reliving it with different players is foolish.

    Fault lies only with Islamic radicals and terror supporters.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Steven: Well, no. Just because the terrorists are the ones who carry out the murders, it doesn’t follow that leaders on our side don’t have an obligation to lead. Providing for the common defense is the primordial obligation of the federal government and the commander in chief has the primary responsibility for leading that task.

  6. Anderson says:

    It is a waste of time to play the blame game.
    Clinton did what he did and we should not put blame on him for the 9/11 attacks.

    We can learn a little from history but reliving it with different players is foolish.

    Fault lies only with Islamic radicals and terror supporters.

    Always happy to seize a chance to agree with Mr. Plunk, but critiquing what went wrong can be useful for doing things right in future. At least, if Dick “Forgotten Nothing and Learned Nothing” Cheney’s not running the White House.

  7. Bandit says:

    It’s a false argument about who’s more to blame for not capturing OBL unless you break it down to pre 9/11 and post 9/11. Obviously pre 9/11 is one set of circumstances and post 9/11 is another. There is some value in reviewing the history and going over what went wrong if it truly is to try to get things right but what is being done by both sides is rewriting history to CYA. What Clinton is inventing is fantasy. He wants to pretend he was Dirty Harry when he was really Barney Fife. If he’s still alive in 10 years he’ll be lying about how he had OBL in a headlock and was going to strangle him with his bare hands but like everything else, it was somebody elses fault he got away.

  8. cian says:

    One can only hope that republicans go to bat for Bush in the upcoming blame game over responsibility for 9/11. Exchanges like the following can only be described as home runs for the democrats:

    BLITZER: So you the asked the president in the Oval Office — and the vice president — why didn’t you go after the Taliban in those eight months before 9/11 after he was president. What did he say?

    BEN-VENISTE: Well, now that it was established that al Qaeda was responsible for the Cole bombing and the president was briefed in January of 2001, soon after he took office, by George Tenet, head of the CIA, telling him of the finding that al Qaeda was responsible, and I said, “Well, why wouldn’t you go after the Taliban in order to get them to kick bin Laden out of Afghanistan?”

    Maybe, just maybe, who knows — we don’t know the answer to that question — but maybe that could have affected the 9/11 plot.

    BLITZER: What did he say?

    BEN-VENISTE: He said that no one had told him that we had made that threat. And I found that very discouraging and surprising.

  9. Wayne says:

    Isn’t it funny that the Democrats have no problem pointing fingers of blame at Republicans but when the opposite happens it’s lets not point fingers? They point fingers at Bush first 8 months, Katrina response and anything else that goes wrong on consistent bases. If someone blames Clinton or the Louisiana Governor, all of sudden it’s lets not be pointing fingers.

    We joke around here whenever something goes wrong it’s Bush’s fault. The Broncos lost, Bush’s fault.

  10. Tano says:

    Actually, I wish Clinton would have declared war on the right wing after Oklahoma City. But he was such a feckless lech…