The Magazine

Bubba Dubya?

A curiously Clintonian turn in U.S. foreign policy.

Jun 19, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 38 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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On August 7, 1998, al Qaeda attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Thirteen days later, Clinton ordered a retaliatory missile attack on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and on Zhawar Kili, a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. International reaction was tepid at best. While Prime Minister Tony Blair stood by Clinton, most European allies were lukewarm. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed "concern" and the Kremlin denounced U.S. actions.

Clinton valued international affirmation. The symbolic Tomahawk strike complete, he sought to assuage allies with renewed commitment to international multilateral diplomacy. Both Clinton and the Taliban reverted to business as usual. Sensing weakness, al Qaeda accelerated its training program. In March 2000, I spent three weeks in the Taliban's Afghanistan. In Kabul, shopkeepers described meeting Arabs and Filipinos training for jihad. While the Taliban denied hosting terror training camps, residents near Rishkhor, a camp just a few kilometers from Kabul, spoke of continued activity. Eighteen months later, graduates from Afghan camps like these brought down the World Trade Center.

Today, the location is different, but the White House's desire to turn a blind eye is the same. In the 1990s, Afghanistan was a forgotten backwater; this decade, it is Somalia. Terrorists love a vacuum. On June 5, the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist group affiliated with al Qaeda, seized Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. Both journalists and policymakers were underwhelmed. Perhaps, some mused, this radical Islamist gang could restore order. Reporting was similarly blasé when the Taliban seized Kabul just under a decade ago.

The Islamic Courts Union and the terrorist threat they pose did not materialize out of thin air; rather, they are a product of Bush administration neglect. Somalis living in Mogadishu speak of terrorist training camps established in the Lower Juba region, along the Kenyan border. According to Somali officials, the camps are not indigenous, but are run by Palestinians and Syrians. Senior U.S. military officials acknowledge the growing al Qaeda presence, but say they are forbidden to intervene. Not only has the Bush administration long nixed U.S. military action against terror training camps but now also forbids the U.S. military from filling the vacuum in still stable regions of the country, such as Somaliland and Puntland.

As the Bush administration wishes the problem away, rich Saudi and Persian Gulf financiers work to consolidate the region as a jihadist base. While Clinton did little to stop the capital flow from Gulf Arab sheikhs into the Taliban's Afghanistan, today the Bush team ignores the almost daily flights from Dubai to the Somali airfield at Baledogle, about 70 miles northwest of Mogadishu. Here, chartered jets bring men and materiel for al Qaeda affiliate al-Ittihad al-Islami and the Taliban-like Islamic Courts Union, which is slowly consolidating its control over Mogadishu.

Clinton Redux

In 1993, Bill Clinton came to the White House without foreign policy experience. He followed the advice of professional diplomats and, for eight years, did what was short-term popular, but long-term unwise.

He trusted U.S. security to the goodwill of international organizations. The intellectual elite applauded, even as Saddam Hussein, for example, exploited the United Nations for financial gain, the European Union funded Palestinian terrorists, and Iran developed secret nuclear facilities under the nose of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

He let public opinion polls determine national security. After a disastrous October 3, 1993, raid in Mogadishu, he ordered U.S. troops to evacuate the country, mission incomplete, a key factor, Osama bin Laden later said, in bolstering al Qaeda's confidence.

Bush's recent about-face also seems driven more by public relations than strategy. Bush administration figures once said they would not replicate Clinton's mistakes. On March 18, 2004, Rice told CNN interviewer John King that a proper U.S. response to 9/11 was "an American strategy that is bold and decisive and takes the fight to [the terrorists]" and not Clinton's laid-back, law-enforcement approach that "led to September 11." Four days later, Vice President Dick Cheney reiterated the message and then, on March 23, 2004, so did Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.