Monday, January 14, 2002

Sept. 11 may taint Clinton's legacy

By Dick Polman

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Until the terrorists struck on American soil, it appeared that Bill Clinton would be enshrined in history as the politically gifted, personally flawed president who survived impeachment and governed an affluent nation at peace with the world.

But now a debate is raging among historians and political experts over whether he has blood on his hands - whether, in essence, the events of Sept. 11 constitute a spreading stain on his legacy.

It's a debate whether Clinton, now a year out of office, should be judged in the context of his times - as a president preoccupied with domestic issues in a decade when few deemed terrorism a top priority - or judged harshly with benefit of hindsight - as a weak commander-in-chief who allowed a lethal enemy to spin a global web.

The Clinton camp, concerned about his place in history, contend that he recognized the threat of al-Qaeda by 1995; that, after several deadly overseas bombings, he signed executive orders targeting Osama bin Laden and doubled the counterterrorism budget; that many plots were foiled behind the scenes; and that his moves were often hampered by faulty intelligence.

But conservative activists have already begun a fund-raising campaign blaming "Clinton and the liberals" for the terrorist attack. And many experts, even some sympathetic to Clinton, believe that future historians, fairly or not, will assess him through the prism of Sept. 11.

Loch Johnson, a national security analyst who served on a Clinton-appointed intelligence commission in 1995 and 1996, said recently: "It's too simplistic to lay the blame on his doorstep, but I regret that more attention wasn't paid at the highest levels" to terrorism, and to foreign policy in general.

As a result, "Clinton's legacy will have to drop a few notches. His priorities were out of balance. There was too much focus on the domestic side."

Robert Kaufman, a political biographer, said: "The wide belief that 'Clinton did a pretty good job despite his shortcomings' will have to be rethought in light of Sept. 11. It's clear his administration was slow to grasp the fact that we were never in an era of perpetual peace."

Some argue, however, that these attacks constitute a new form of Clinton-bashing.

Political analyst Stephen Hess, who worked for Republican Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, asked: "How much hindsight should be allowed here? Looking back, it's clear Clinton was remiss. But would [George W.] Bush or anyone else have done better? At the time, Clinton had a lot of things on his platter and he didn't have a crystal ball."

But that may not save him from the judgment of scholars.

Presidential historian Allan Lichtman said: "Sept. 11 will shape our questions about the past. It's unfair that historians of Clinton will know about an event that he couldn't have foreseen, but that's always the way history works. We judge the past based on contemporary views. Today we fault Thomas Jefferson for having slaves."

So the retrospective indictment looks like this:

Clinton cared too little about foreign policy, and never met with his first CIA chief, James Woolsey; he was distracted by personal scandal at a time (1998) when bin Laden was making strides; he lacked the guts to use sustained military muscle; he didn't oppose the Taliban's efforts to seize power in Afghanistan; he spurned Sudan when that nation offered to hand over bin Laden in 1996.

In general, said Fred Greenstein, author of eight books on the presidency, "Clinton's White House was disorganized and chaotic. It was like a kids' soccer game without rules. It was a presidency of loose ends. So there was very little chance he'd systematically address any problem - including terrorism."

Clinton's defenders deny some of these charges, dismiss others as half-truths, and offer rebuttal - pointing out that Clinton signed four executive orders aimed at assassinating bin Laden, raised counterterrorism spending over several years from $5.7 billion to $11.1 billion, and gave major speeches on the terrorist threat.

They say Clinton spurned Sudan's offer to hand over bin Laden because the United States lacked enough evidence to indict him in earlier attacks in Somalia, Yemen and at the World Trade Center in 1993. (So Clinton let the Sudanese send bin Laden to Afghanistan - prompting Mansoor Ijez, a Clinton friend who tried to broker the deal, to write recently that "Clinton's failure to grasp the opportunity . . . represents one of the most serious policy failures in American history.")

It's true that Clinton was sanguine about the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, but his defenders say there is plenty of blame to spread around - namely, that Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush sowed the seeds for a terrorist haven by abandoning Afghanistan to chaos after the Soviet occupiers were driven out in 1989.

It's also true that Clinton looked weak in 1998 by firing a cruise missile at bin Laden in Afghanistan, missing him (narrowly, it appears), and failing to follow up. But Republicans at the time weren't exactly howling for war; they dismissed that attack on bin Laden as merely an attempt by Clinton to detract attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In fact, Clinton's defenders contend, Republicans were arguably less focused on fighting terrorism. In 1996, the GOP Congress blocked a Clinton provision that would have given the FBI more electronic surveillance tools for the domestic tracking of terrorists - the same provision that passed overwhelmingly after Sept. 11.

Three years ago, in fact, when Clinton wanted to create a well-funded Domestic Terrorist Team, conservative Phyllis Schlafly scoffed at the idea, warning that Americans "should not underestimate the deceit and deviousness of Clinton's plans to use aggressive presidential actions to wipe out public memory of his impeachment trial."

Clinton has said that, nonetheless, 15 plots were foiled during his tenure. But failures are what people remember; successes occur in the shadows. Paul Pillar, a career CIA man, wrote recently that "many American lives" were saved on Clinton's watch, but "it is difficult to say exactly how many bombs did not explode, and how many people did not consequently become terrorist victims."

And Sid Milkis, a presidential historian, argued that even if people want to judge Clinton only in the context of Sept. 11, it isn't fair to blame Clinton for what he insists is a collective failure:

"We were insular before Sept. 11. We voted for Clinton because he was focused on domestic stuff. We're a different country now. We're willing to conduct a full-scale war now; we weren't before. We still had the long Vietnam hangover, and we didn't trust a president to wage a war that could cost a lot of lives. Clinton reflected that."

Robert Kaufman countered: "A real leader tries to shape the public mood. Clinton was reluctant to create the will for the kind of decisive action that was necessary."

Clinton was warned that only the boldest presidents fare best in the history books. At one point, while discussing presidential rankings, pollster Dick Morris told him that he wouldn't make the first tier unless he prosecuted a war. But Clinton didn't have a war.

So Morris said that if Clinton wanted to make the second tier, "you have to break the back of terrorism by economic and military action."

The World Trade Center fell five years later.

Dick Polman's e-mail address is

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