From behind the benign façade and the tranquilizing smile, the real Bill Clinton emerged Sunday during Chris Wallace’s interview on Fox News Channel. There he was on live television, the man those who have worked for him have come to know – the angry, sarcastic, snarling, self-righteous, bombastic bully, roused to a fever pitch. The truer the accusation, the greater the feigned indignation. Clinton jabbed his finger in Wallace’s face, poking his knee, and invading the commentator’s space.
But beyond noting the ex-president’s non-presidential style, it is important to answer his distortions and misrepresentations. His self-justifications constitute a mangling of the truth which only someone who once quibbled about what the “definition of ‘is’ is” could perform.
Clinton told Wallace, “There is not a living soul in the world who thought that Osama bin Laden had anything to do with Black Hawk Down.” Nobody said there was. The point of citing Somalia in the run up to 9-11 is that bin Laden told Fortune Magazine in a 1999 interview that the precipitous American pullout after Black Hawk Down convinced him that Americans would not stand up to armed resistance.
Clinton said conservatives “were all trying to get me to withdraw from Somalia in 1993 the next day” after the attack which killed American soldiers. But the real question was whether Clinton would honor the military’s request to be allowed to stay and avenge the attack, a request he denied. The debate was not between immediate withdrawal and a six-month delay. (Then-first lady, now-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) favored the first option, by the way). The fight was over whether to attack or pull out eventually without any major offensive operations.
The president told Wallace, “I authorized the CIA to get groups together to try to kill bin Laden.” But actually, the 9-11 Commission was clear that the plan to kidnap Osama was derailed by Sandy Berger and George Tenet because Clinton had not yet made a finding authorizing his assassination. They were fearful that Osama would die in the kidnapping and the U.S. would be blamed for using assassination as an instrument of policy.
Clinton claims “the CIA and the FBI refused to certify that bin Laden was responsible [for the Cole bombing] while I was there.” But he could replace or direct his employees as he felt. His helplessness was, as usual, self-imposed.
Why didn’t the CIA and FBI realize the extent of bin Laden’s involvement in terrorism? Because Clinton never took the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center sufficiently seriously. He never visited the site and his only public comment was to caution against “over-reaction.” In his pre-9/11 memoirs, George Stephanopoulos confirms that he and others on the staff saw it as a “failed bombing” and noted that it was far from topic A at the White House. Rather than the full-court press that the first terror attack on American soil deserved, Clinton let the investigation be handled by the FBI on location in New York without making it the national emergency it actually was.
In my frequent phone and personal conversations with both Clintons in 1993, there was never a mention, not one, of the World Trade Center attack. It was never a subject of presidential focus.
Failure to grasp the import of the 1993 attack led to a delay in fingering bin Laden and understanding his danger. This, in turn, led to our failure to seize him when Sudan evicted him and also to our failure to carry through with the plot to kidnap him. And, it was responsible for the failure to “certify” him as the culprit until very late in the Clinton administration.
The former president says, “I worked hard to try to kill him.” If so, why did he notify Pakistan of our cruise-missile strike in time for them to warn Osama and allow him to escape? Why did he refuse to allow us to fire cruise missiles to kill bin Laden when we had the best chance, by far, in 1999? The answer to the first question — incompetence; to the second — he was paralyzed by fear of civilian casualties and by accusations that he was wagging the dog. The 9/11 Commission report also attributes the 1999 failure to the fear that we would be labeled trigger-happy having just bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by mistake.
President Clinton assumes that criticism of his failure to kill bin Laden is a “nice little conservative hit job on me.” But he has it backwards. It is not because people are right-wingers that they criticize him over the failure to prevent 9/11. It was his failure to catch bin Laden that drove them to the right wing.
The ex-president is fully justified in laying eight months of the blame for the failure to kill or catch bin Laden at the doorstep of George W. Bush. But he should candidly acknowledge that eight years of blame fall on him.
One also has to wonder when the volcanic rage beneath the surface of this would-be statesman will cool. When will the chip on his shoulder finally disappear? When will he feel sufficiently secure in his own legacy and his own skin not to boil over repeatedly in private and occasionally even in public?