Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
March 27, 2004
WAR/POLITICS: Clarke Star Crashing
Some controversies, you can't blog halfway, and with so many people blogging on the Clarke thing and so much new dirt on the guy every day, it's been pretty pointless for me to try to keep up even if I hadn't been swamped at work all week. One thought, on his easily disproven whopper about Condi Rice: there's no older cliche in the political book than disgruntled insiders claiming people they met with didn't know what was going on. Hell, they tried that with George Washington.
For what it's worth, here's my link-free, bottom-line take on what I think we know thus far about the propriety of blaming Clinton and/or Bush for September 11 (I may or may not go back and dig up the supporting links on this some other day, but it's all out there):
1. With the benefit of hinsdight, it's now clear that Clinton's people screwed up our anti-terror policy, beginning after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, through too much caution about committing to use military force and by a law enforcement-centered approach, despite having regularly considered more aggressive approaches.
2. In so doing, they were largely unchallenged by the GOP and not sufficiently challenged by the conservative press.
4. Clinton's people knew well how bad the overall threat was, and warned Bush's people about the nature of the threat.
5. On the other hand, they didn't hand over any kind of a strategy or plan to do anything about it other than a continuation of the prior insufficient efforts.
6. Clinton also recognized the Saddam problem -- that the 'containment' regime's premises had collapsed and the status quo was ultimately unsustainable -- but similarly didn't hand over any strategy to do anything about Saddam.
7. Bush & Gore both recognized in the 2000 campaign that the status quo with Iraq needed to change, and both would have headed towards a clash with Saddam even without 9/11.
8. Neither Bush nor Gore said much about bin Laden or terrorism in the 2000 campaign. It was not an issue and didn't even come up at the debates.
9. The Bush Administration, like its predecessor, did nothing of significance on terror or on Iraq for its first 8 months in office.
10. However, the Bush Administration appears to have been developing strategies to deal with both problems (bin Laden and Saddam) by early September 2001, albeit without the urgency we'd want, with hindsight, to have seen from both Bush & Clinton.
11. The Bush Administration also seems to have had some warnings about Al Qaeda using airplanes as a weapon - in fact, I checked and there were widespread press accounts in June 2001 of Al Qaeda reportedly plotting use airplanes as a weapon at the G8 summit in Italy that summer - but never got more specific information, in part because of pre-Patriot Act restrictions on law enforcement's ability to connect the dots.
Bottom line: yes, in hindsight, both the Bush and Clinton Administrations, with more foresight, could have done more on both counts. Yes, they should have done more. Yes, I hand Clinton the larger share of the blame, at least as far as the failure to develop a long-range offensive strategy is concerned - whereas it appears that Bush was at least thinking in that direction. On the defensive question (i.e., having the homeland on alert), there's less to fault Clinton and a bit to question about Bush, but I regard the failings as mostly institutional - the problem was the inability to pursue evidentiary leads and get urgent warnings up the ladder, rather than a failure of leadership.
But the blame isn't, in my view, the important question - as I said, none of it is entirely damning, and it's bipartisan in nature. The important question is what's been learned. The Bush Administration, of course, is famously unwilling to throw red meat to its critics by admitting error (witness what happened when they gave an inch on the State of the Union), but its actions have shown a willingness to re-evaluate U.S. military doctrine and law enforcement practice in numerous ways since. The Democrats . . . not so much. I really don't have confidence that John Kerry, who's been busy blasting Bush for being too eager to go to war and who's campaigned against the expanded law enforcement powers of the Patriot Act, has really learned anything.