The Blog

The Clinton Chronicles (cont.)

William Jefferson Clinton: Ex-president, healer, mayor emeritus, and one war away from greatness. Or not.

12:01 AM, Oct 3, 2001 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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IS THERE ANY DISASTER SO AWFUL, so overwhelming, that it cannot be transformed into just another landmark moment in the heroic personal odyssey of William Jefferson Clinton? Given the man's behavior since Sept. 11, the answer appears to be a big fat no. He's covering his ass, feeling our pain, patching things up with Al Gore, and worrying about his legacy. Last Friday, in a speech to students at a Harlem school, Clinton said that "the terrorists want Americans to run and hide . . . The most important thing you can do is go on with your life and be you." Unfortunately, he appears to be following his own advice.

While touring lower Manhattan two days after the terrorist attacks, Clinton began making the case that he had almost single-handedly saved America from this catastrophe. "The best shot we had at [bin Laden] was when I bombed his training camps [in Afghanistan] in 1998," Clinton told reporters. Note the vintage Clintonian usage of the word "I". But this time Clinton caught himself unusually quickly, and downshifted into the more appropriate "we" mode: "We just missed him by a matter of hours, maybe even less than an hour. . . . We wrapped up his training camp, and after that we took down a lot of his terrorist operations around the world, more than were known. We prevented a lot of bad things from happening." Clinton later revealed that he also authorized commando raids in 1999 to capture or kill bin Laden, "but we did not have the necessary intelligence to do it in the way we would have had to do it." At least four bin Laden terrorist missions were successfully foiled while he was president, he said.

It's questionable, however, whether Clinton's wag-the-dog cruise-missile strikes ever came close to taking out bin Laden. In an interview last week with National Review's Byron York, retired general Anthony Zinni, commander of U.S. forces in the region at the time, described the 1998 missile attack as a "million-to-one shot." "There was a possibility [bin Laden] could have been there," he recalled, but "my intelligence people did not put a lot of faith in that. . . ."

Not content to defend himself to reporters, Clinton has also unburdened himself to helpless passers-by. The Washington Post revealed the contents of an e-mail describing one New Yorker's bizarre encounter with Clinton and Giuliani at a Manhattan heliport:

"The mayor took off almost immediately," the 43-year-old [Saul] Finkelstein, a die-hard Democrat, wrote in an e-mail to friends, "and like the consummate campaigner . . . Clinton walked toward me and my sons." In a 15-minute conversation, Clinton assured the Finkelsteins he had done his best to neutralize Osama bin Laden . . . "We missed him by an hour," Clinton said, according to the e-mail. "[Clinton] said that the president can t say this, but it will not be that difficult to get bin Laden [today] because unlike in 1998 . . . the U.S. will have the cooperation of surrounding countries and you can't fight this guy from 1,000 miles away. "

This last claim is astonishing. Essentially, Clinton is whining that Bush will get all the glory for finally eliminating Osama because now it will be so much easier.

The ultimate message of this impromptu lecture, Finkelstein concluded, was that Clinton "had done a lot to go after bin Laden . . . and that what happened on Sept. 11 could in no way be traced to some failure on his administration's part." The senior foreign policy types in the Clinton administration Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, Strobe Talbott, Richard Holbrooke, et al. have been echoing this line on television since the 11th. It's an assertion that grows ever more difficult to accept as we learn new details about their administration's failures (see Joe Klein's piece in the Oct. 1 New Yorker or Andrew Sullivan's Sept. 30 article in the London Sunday Times, for starters).

To their credit, several less-visible former Clinton officials have been more forthcoming. A little over a week after the attacks, the Boston Globe ran a devastating article in which Nancy Soderberg, a former senior aide on Clinton's National Security Council, said, "In hindsight, [what we did] wasn't enough, and anyone involved in policy would have to admit that." Former Clinton deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick concurred: "Clearly, not enough was done. . . . We should have caught this. Why this happened, I don't know. Responsibilities were given out. Resources were given. Authorities existed. We should have prevented this."