Renewed interest in Bill Clinton’s years as President arose recently with claims of ineptitude suggested by a new ABC movie, the “Path to 9/11”. While issues concerning the authenticity of certain events in the movie remain unresolved, it is not entirely an unfair criticism given Clinton’s mindset and the responses of his Administration to the provocations of our enemies.
For eight years, US foreign policy in the Arab Muslim world consisted of Bill Clinton desperately seeking a legacy, craving the Nobel Peace Prize, running America by opinion polls, sending cruise missiles to blow up empty tents in the Afghan desert and pharmaceutical factories in the Sudan, signing agreements with dictators based on the belief that America would somehow be “safe,” and seeing attacks as nothing more than a series of separate, unrelated criminal acts rather than an assault on our way of life.
As David Horowitz summarized these years in FrontPageMagazine: “Underlying the Clinton security failure was the fact that the Administration was made up of people who for twenty-five years had discounted or minimized the totalitarian threat, opposed America’s armed presence abroad, and consistently resisted the deployment of America’s military forces to halt Communist expansion…..During its eight years, the Clinton Administration was able to focus enough attention on defense matters to hamstring the intelligence services in the name of civil liberties, shrink the US military in the name of economy, and prevent the Pentagon from adopting (and funding) a “two-war” strategy, because “the Cold War was over” and in the White House’s judgment, there was no requisite military threat in the post-Communist world that might make it necessary for the United States to be able to fight wars on two fronts. Inattention to defense also did not prevent the Clinton Administration from pursuing massive social experiments in the military in the name of gender and diversity reform, which included requiring “consciousness-raising” classes for military personnel, rigging physical standards women were unable to meet, and in general undermining the meritocratic benchmarks that are a crucial component of military morale.”
Clinton supporters argue that he made three significant contributions to the then unrecognized war on terrorism. First, based on the testimony of Richard Clarke, the former counter-terrorism czar, before the 9/11 Commission, Clinton struck back after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing by unmasking Iranian intelligence officers around the world, significantly disrupting Iranian-backed terrorism. Second, during his tenure in office, Congress passed significant legislation allowing victims of terrorism and their families a broadened legal remedy against those who perpetrated the particular acts of terrorism. They note that he put forth the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that banned terrorist fundraising in the United States, set up an expedited alien terrorist removal system, modified the procedures for requesting political asylum, criminalized “providing material support” to terrorists or terrorist organizations, curtailed the appeal process, increased the penalties for conspiracies involving explosives and other terrorist crimes, applied the money laundering statute to terrorism, and clarified federal and state police jurisdiction over investigating terrorism. They also point to the fact that the Act amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) allowing American victims of terrorism to seek justice through the courts against states that sponsored terrorism and gave victims the right to seek punitive damages for pain and suffering by increasing the assistance and compensation available to them. They note that the Act allows Americans who are victims of terrorist acts abroad, the right to sue foreign countries in American courts provided that these governments had been designated by the US to be state sponsors of terrorism. Third, they argue that Clinton passed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 recognizing early on that Saddam Hussein was a threat to stability in the Middle East.
The problem with these “contributions” so to speak, is that they reinforce the primary criticism that has been leveled against the Clinton Administration – the desire to use the courts as the battleground, rather than engaging with the terrorists themselves. During the Clinton years, Islamic terrorists were fought almost exclusively with indictments and press releases as opposed to military force. Despite the experience of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the 1993 conspiracy to bomb New York City landmarks (specifically the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels), the debacle in Mogadishu, the knowledge of the 1995 Bojinka Project to use American passenger planes to bomb American landmarks; the bombings in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, the fatwas of Osama Bin Laden declaring war on America, the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, the failed attack on the USS The Sullivans and the successful attack on the USS Cole in 2000 (not to mention the hundreds of Americans killed in these attacks), the Clinton mindset was one that saw these events as requiring criminal proceedings rather than military responses.
When al Qaeda blew up American targets abroad, the FBI would fly in its “investigators” and work the “crime scene”. Andrew McCarthy (who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in connection with the first World Trade Center bombing) has written: “In the Clinton years, no matter how many times we were attacked, the world knew that our approach was to have the FBI build criminal cases. Indeed, Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 39, issued in June 1995, announced that prosecuting terrorists and extraditing indicted terrorists held overseas were signature priorities of the administration. Nearly three years later, after several other attacks and public declarations of war by bin Laden, Clinton issued a press release that both trumpeted as a ringing success his strategy of having terrorists “apprehended, tried, and given severe prison sentences” and announced a new directive, PDD 62 to “reinforce the mission of the many US agencies charged with roles in defeating terrorism,” including by means of the “apprehension and prosecution of terrorists.” The embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed less than three months later. 
In the aftermath of the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, Clinton warned against over-reacting and was so intent on treating the bombing as a “crime” that for some time afterward, he refused even to meet with his own CIA director, James Woolsey lest he hear about terrorist networks and the states sponsoring them. It is probable that he did not want to hear of such things as he had no intention of undertaking the requisite military action that such knowledge might require. He repeated the Beirut disaster of ten years earlier by withdrawing from Somalia under attack in October 1993. America left her dead soldiers lying in the streets of Mogadishu and Al Qaeda dragged a dead one through the streets in an act calculated to humiliate our country and our people. There was no significant military response to the humiliation. In his 1996 Declaration against America, bin Laden declared: “When tens of your soldiers were killed in minor battles and one American pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu, you left the area in disappointment, humiliation and defeat. You had been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear”, he said, and, by withdrawing, in al Qaeda’s perception, bin Laden had belittled the United States as compared to the Soviet Union. “The Russian soldier is more courageous and patient than the US soldier,” bin Laden said: “Our battle with the United States is easy compared with the battles in which we engaged in Afghanistan. When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” After Mogadishu, Clinton appeared in front of the whole world threatening and promising revenge, but these threats were merely a preparation for an American withdrawal and bin Laden knew it. 
Judging magnanimity as decadence, the half-educated in al Qaeda embraced the concept that the soft and decadent West lacked the necessary faith and “stomach” to defend its strategic interests.  The perception of American weakness became provocative. Our enemies and Middle Eastern “friends” alike sneered at our self-flagellation. The perception grew that the West not only could not fight, but would not fight. We became viewed as a great power who spoke in principled terms but was adverse to spend blood and treasure in pursuit of them. Al Qaeda and its global Islamic terrorist affiliates came to the conclusion that America’s weakness stemmed from a post-Vietnam conception that wars had to be short and casualty free. Bin Laden summed up his perception in an interview with ABC News reporter John Miller, published in Esquire in 1998: “After leaving Afghanistan, the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle thinking that the Americans were like the Russians. The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized, more than before, that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows…ran in defeat.” In another portion of that interview Miller quotes bin Laden as saying: “We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weakness of the American soldier who is ready to wage Cold Wars and unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than 24 hours, and this was also repeated in Somalia.” And later, in a 2000 recruitment video for al Qaeda, he restated what he had come to learn from his experience with the American infidel: “We believe that America is much weaker than Russia; and our brothers who fought in Somalia told us they were astonished to observe how weak, impotent and cowardly the American soldier is. As soon as eighty [sic] American troops were killed, they fled in the dark as fast as they could, after making a great noise about the new international order. America’s nightmares in Vietnam and Lebanon will pale by comparison with the forthcoming victory.”
In 1993, Saddam Hussein plotted to kill George H.W. Bush on one of his goodwill trips to Africa. In retaliation, Clinton unleashed America’s full wrath – two dozen cruise missiles on an empty intelligence headquarters! The following year, American intelligence recognized that North Korea was well on its way toward developing the atomic bomb. Rather than seriously consider a pre-emptive strike along the lines of the Israeli strike at Osirak, Iraq more than a decade earlier, Clinton elected to rely on former President Jimmy Carter to buy off the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, food, oil and even a nuclear reactor, not to mention an Agreed Framework that had minimal sanctions if the Agreement was violated and the most informal means of verification. Carter returned to America waving a piece of paper and taking great pride in his accomplishment. Kim starved to death over a million of his own people by diverting American aid to bomb development.
The US government then hatched a plot to overthrow Saddam in 1995 only to pull out at the last minute leaving its Kurdish friends to either cut deals with the dictator, flee, or be killed. 
In February 1996, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir wanted terrorism sanctions against Sudan lifted. He offered the arrest and extradition of bin Laden and detailed intelligence data about the global networks constructed by Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, Iran’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas. The Clinton Administration failed to respond to this overture – an error that Clinton later admitted was the greatest mistake of his presidency. Bin Laden subsequently left for Afghanistan, taking with him Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the former head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, future partner in murder and one of the key planners of 9/11.
Three months later, on June 22, 1996, Clinton offered (through an Arabic-language newspaper in London) to open a direct dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran. His offer was greeted with derision by the official media (and the government) in Tehran. Three days later, a truck bomb destroyed the Khobar Towers military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia (later determined to have been planned by Iran using Saudi proxies). In August, bin Laden issued his Declaration of War on America.
In the meantime, on a tour of Africa in March 1998, Clinton apologized for African slavery, the internment of Japanese Americans, for not saving Rwanda, and for much more. Al Qaeda responded by blowing up our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In retaliation, Clinton authorized a cruise missile attack on bin Laden’s encampment in Khost, Afghanistan, but it had the exact reverse effect – it made the U.S. look weak and ineffective and reinforced the already existing perception of American vulnerability.
During these years, the Clinton Administration was quiet about almost everything from Saudi blackmail payments to terrorists and beheadings to mass jailings and the disfigurement of women.  Political appeasement throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s only emboldened Arab killers. According to Dick Morris, who was then Clinton’s political adviser: “The weekly strategy meetings at the White House throughout 1995 and 1996 featured an escalating drumbeat of advice to President Clinton to take decisive steps to crack down on terrorism. The polls gave these ideas a green light. But Clinton hesitated and failed to act, always finding a reason why some other concern was more important.”  In 1998, Saddam stopped cooperating with UN weapons inspectors. In response, the United States and Britain bombed Iraq for four days from 30,000 feet – none of which made an appreciable dent in Saddam’s dictatorship. This failure suggested to the conspiracy-minded Arab Muslim world either that the United States secretly wanted to maintain Saddam in power for some nefarious purpose or that it feared the Iraqi dictator. Either way, the vacillating US policy on Iraq signaled a fatal lack of seriousness on America’s part. It was a malignancy that would eventually lead to 9/11 and to the 1998 comment of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Khomeini’s successor) that there was no need to negotiate with the United States since Tehran had shown that Washington was “too weak to be feared or heeded.” 
Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mullah often regarded as the Khomeinist regime’s “strongman,” in a sermon on the campus of Tehran University, stated his perception of America in less than glowing terms: “The US has been exposed as an empty drum,” he said. “Here is our opportunity to teach the Americans a lesson”. Far from attacking the United States because it is a “big bully,” Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and others urged attacks to prove that the United States was just a “paper tiger.” 
Even after the failed attack on the USS Sullivans (because the over-laden explosives boat of the terrorists sank as it approached The Sullivans – not because of any great intelligence coup by the CIA) and later the successful al Qaeda attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Aden Harbor in 2000 (and on the French tanker Limburg off the Yemeni coast in 2002), Clinton ordered his ships to sea rather than his Marines to shore. 
Overall, the Arab states and al Qaeda took cognizance of the fact that the US had failed to respond aggressively to many terrorist attacks including the hijackings and kidnappings of its own citizens in Beirut, US dithering while Americans were seized as hostages in Iran, terrorist bombings of its embassies and barracks in Beirut, Tanzania and in Kenya, allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power after the Gulf War (while letting the Shah fall in Iran), and pressuring Israel, its ally, to make dangerous strategic concessions while simultaneously courting Israel’s enemies. This perception led the Chinese to conclude: “The United States is a superpower in decline, losing economic, political and military influence around the world,” according to the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Security Review Commission. The Commission also noted that “Chinese analysts believe that the United States cannot and will not sustain casualties in pursuit of its vital interests.” Translated into geo-political terms – America is weak because it is not prepared to fight for its vital strategic interests. In the Middle East and elsewhere, that perception is a malignancy that can only spread.
And China was far from alone in holding this opinion. America’s perceived decline into weakness and its questionable “staying power” in pursuit of its strategic objectives has now served as a call to arms to the monsters of the world. As Max Boot sarcastically wrote in the Weekly Standard: “America was seen as an equal opportunity appeaser.” Our eagerness to avoid war, our readiness to make concessions and our willingness to avoid confrontation all resulted in the exact opposite effect. 
In July 1999, Secretary of Defense William Cohen wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, predicting a terrorist attack on the American mainland. “In the past year, dozens of threats to use chemical or biological weapons in the United States have turned out to be hoaxes. Someday, one will be real.” But this warning did not produce the requisite action either by the commander-in-chief or in the media.
Bin Laden’s continuous challenges to American power and prestige – and America’s failure to respond to these challenges – represent a case study in the errors of past American foreign policy in the Islamic world. Even before the costliest terrorist strike in history occurred on 9/11, Islamic violence directed at Americans had already killed 800 people – more than were killed by any other enemy since the Vietnam War. Yet, these murders barely registered on our foreign policy radar screens. In all cases, the US government dispatched the FBI to identify individuals for prosecution. “War” and “enemy combatants” were never mentioned.
These errors were confirmed eventually from an admission by one of the highest ranking al Qaeda operatives captured to date – Khalid Shaikh Mohammed – the mastermind behind the September 11th terrorist attacks against the United States and the man believed to be responsible for the death of Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl. In April 2003, he told his interrogators that America’s tepid military response to terrorist attacks against its interests abroad during the last decade led to the perception of “profound weakness” by al Qaeda. He cited the limited missile strikes aimed at Osama bin Laden that followed the bombing of two American embassies in East Africa in August 1998.
Despite the fact that Bill Clinton was the most accommodating and multilateralist president one can imagine, we know that al Qaeda began plotting the 9/11 attacks precisely during his presidency. Clinton Administration officials have put forth the argument that, in the absence of a mega-attack on American soil (like 9/11), the country was neither emotionally nor psychologically prepared for a significant military commitment against the forces of Islamic terrorism. Yet, during Clinton’s tenure, bin Laden attacked our homeland (in 1993), our citizens, our embassies, our military installations and our warships. Short of 9/11, what more could bin Laden have done to convince us that he was at war with us?
The fundamental problem with the Clinton administration was that it was averse to seeing acts of war as anything other than criminal behavior and shied away from challenges that could only be confronted militarily. It sought compromise at all diplomatic levels – intent on avoiding direct conflict and American casualties. He failed to recognize that the bin Ladens and al-Zawahiris of the world have engaged us in a religious war that is being fought by non-state actors prepared to become martyrs, funded by our enemies and committed to the destruction of our way of life. Until such time as we recognize that we must change “the rules of engagement” with such an enemy, our victory in this war is by no means assured.
- David Horowitz, “How the Left Undermined America’s Security before 9/11,” FrontPageMagazine, March 24, 2004
- Andrew C. McCarthy, “The Intelligence Mess: How It Happened, What to Do About It,” Commentary, April 2004
- Norman Podhoretz, “The War Against World War IV,” Commentary, February 2005,” op. cit.; Michael Dobbs, “Inside the Mind of Osama Bin Laden: Strategy Mixes Long Preparation, Powerful Message Aimed at Dispossessed,” Washington Post, September 20, 2001; Page A01
- Democracy for the Middle East, May 2003 archives
- Max Boot, “The End of Appeasement: Bush’s opportunity to redeem America’s past failures in the Middle East,” Weekly Standard, February 10, 2003, Volume 008, Issue 21
- Victor Davis Hanson, “Middle East Tragedies – Pressing ahead is our only choice,” National Review Online, May 23, 2003
- Dick Morris, “Non-War on Terror,” NYPost.com, December 26, 2001
- Barry Rubin, “Damn Yankees,” Foreign Affairs, October 29, 2002
- Amir Taheri, “What Iran Wants in Iraq & Beyond,” New York Post, April 18, 2004
- Robert D. Kaplan, “A Tale of Two Colonies,” The Atlantic Monthly, April 2003
- Max Boot, op. cit.