Monday, September 11, 2006

The Clinton legacy and the '06 elections

On this tragic day, let’s stick with the ABC docudrama story a little longer. Part One aired last night, bracketed with stentorian warnings about its lack of historical accuracy. I’m not going to try to fact-check a work of infotainment; I’m more interested in the political subtext of this dispute.

Leaving aside the hypocrisy issue (which I covered in Friday’s post), it’s easy to see why the Democrats have been so hot to trash the miniseries: Elections are on the horizon, they’re trying to win back the House and Senate, and they probably can’t do it unless they convince swing voters that they’re at least as vigilant as the governing GOP about our national security.

In other words, the last thing they need is for people to watch (and believe) a fact-and-fiction smorgasbord that insinuates in certain episodes that Bill Clinton and his national security team screwed up during the long prelude to 9/11. If viewers are busy debating the Clinton legacy, that potentially shifts the focus away from President Bush’s record.

So the question does arise, what about that Clinton legacy? Was he as vigilant as he should have been? With the wisdom of 20-20 hindsight, probably not. Would another leader (say, a Republican) have done any better? That’s impossible to answer, especially given the ‘90s focus on domestic issues. What can be hard for partisans on either side to accept is the simply reality that these are complicated questions, and that all presidents leave complicated legacies that are grist for centuries of historical debate.

Clinton’s track record on terrorism is a perfect example. It appears to be a mixed bag, which may explain why Democrats are so sensitive about the issue; on the other hand, the GOP isn’t blameless, either. At the risk of riling everybody up, here’s my take on the dispute (based on my own files and notes).

The upside: Clinton signed four executive orders aimed at assassinating Osama bin Laden, raised counterterrorism spending over several years from $5.7 billion to $11.1 billion, gave major speeches on the terrorist threat, sought (unsuccessfully) to create a Domestic Terrorist Team and to ratchet up the FBI’s domestic surveillance tools. Also, according to the best available evidence, at least a dozen terrorist plots were apparently foiled on his watch. Paul Pillar, a career CIA man, has said that “many American lives” were saved during that period. And Richard Clarke, the Clinton national security man who was demoted by the Bush administration, has repeatedly said that the Clintonites were more focused on al Qaeda than their successors were during the first nine months of 2001.

But here’s the downside: Clinton never even bothered to meet with his first CIA chief, James Woolsey; the Lewinsky scandal was a major distraction at the time when bin Laden was gaining strength; he didn't oppose the Taliban's efforts to seize power in Afghanistan; he may have muffed a major opportunity in 1996, when Sudan offered to hand over bin Laden to U.S. authorities. (Five years ago, a Clinton friend who tried to broker that deal wrote: “Clinton’s failure to grasp the opportunity . . . represents one of the most serious policy failures in American history.")

I remember speaking a few years ago with Fred Greenstein, a Princeton historian and author of eight books on the presidency. He told me, “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."

But then we get into the rebuttals. Democrats and Clinton legacy defenders say that he spurned Sudan's offer because the U.S. lacked sufficient evidence to indict bin Laden in earlier attacks in Somalia, Yemen and at the World Trade Center in 1993. They say that Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush sowed the seeds for the Taliban by doing nothing in Afghanistan after the Soviets were chased out in 1989.

And even though Clinton looked weak in 1998 after firing a missile at bin Laden and missing, there wasn’t exactly a major clamor from the Republicans for a more hawkish military response. In fact, the evidence shows, the congressional GOP was no more focused on al Qaeda than Clinton was – and maybe less, given their suspicion of all Clintonian actions.

In 1996, when Clinton wanted to give the FBI those enhanced domestic surveillance tools, the Republican Congress rejected the idea. Three years later, when Clinton wanted to create that domestic intelligence team, the Republican Congress slapped him down, claiming that he was just playing politics; as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly contended at the time, 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."

So what’s the best assessment, and is it fair to judge him with the luxury of hindsight? A few years ago, I asked some experts that very question. They couldn’t agree, either.

Stephen Hess, a political analyst who once worked for Republican presidents, said: Looking back, it's clear Clinton was remiss. But would Bush or anyone else have done better? At the time, Clinton…didn't have a crystal ball." Yet presidential historian Allan Lichtman (who’s currently vying for the Democratic Senate nomination in Maryland) 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."

Nevertheless, as the two parties vie this fall over who’s tougher on terrorism, the ABC docudrama will probably be forgotten within a week. And the Democrats might have one big advantage: It is Bush, not Clinton, whose national security record is most on the line in the ’06 election.

And, according to author Ron Suskind, citing an incident that has not been refuted, it was Bush, not Clinton, who received an urgent briefing from a CIA official, during the summer of 2001, about a potentially imminent terrorist attack…and responded by saying, “All right. You’ve covered your ass now.”