Charles Krauthammer

WASHINGTON -- It is only March but the 2004 Chutzpah of the Year Award can be safely given out. It goes to Richard Clarke, now making himself famous by blaming the Bush administration for 9/11 -- after Clarke had spent eight years in charge of counterterrorism for a Clinton administration that did nothing.

The 1990s were al Qaeda's springtime: Blissfully unmolested in Afghanistan, it trained, indoctrinated, armed and, most fatally, planned. For the United States, this was a catastrophic lapse, and in a March 2002 interview on PBS' ``Frontline,'' Clarke admitted as such: ``I believe that had we destroyed the terrorist camps in Afghanistan earlier, that the conveyor belt that was producing terrorists sending them out around the world would have been destroyed.'' Instead, ``now we have to hunt (them) down country by country.''

What should we have done during those lost years? Clarke answered: ``Blow up the camps and take out their sanctuary. Eliminate their safe haven, eliminate their infrastructure. ... That's ... the one thing in retrospect I wish had happened.''

It did not. And who was president? Clinton. Who was the Clinton administration's top counterterrorism official? Clarke. He now says that no one followed his advice. Why did he not speak out then? And if the issue was as critical to the nation as he now tells us, why didn't he resign in protest?

Clinton had one justification after another for going on the offensive: American blood spilled in the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the embassy bombings of 1998, the undeniable act of war in the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Response: A single, [W1]transparently useless, cruise missile attack on empty Afghan tents, plus a (mistaken!) attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory.

As Clinton Defense Secretary William Cohen testified, three times the CIA was ready with plans to assassinate Osama. Every time, President Clinton stood them down, because ``We're not quite sure.''

We're not quite sure -- a fitting epitaph for the Clinton antiterrorism policy. They were also not quite sure about taking Osama when Sudan offered him up on a silver platter in 1996. The Clinton people turned Sudan down, citing legal reasons.

The ``Frontline'' interviewer asked Clarke whether failing to blow up the camps and take out the Afghan sanctuary was a ``pretty basic mistake.''

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

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