Friday, September 29, 2006

Clear Thinking About Clinton and the Terror Threat

Former President Bill Clinton's outburst on Fox News last Sunday has pretty much been the political play of the week. Ann Althouse's comments on Clinton's eruption noted how frumpy the former president looked (this was before I saw excerpts from the Chris Wallace interview, and she made a good point, especially considering Clinton's hiked-up trousers).

Today, though,
E.J. Dionne's got an interesting defense of Clinton up at Real Clear Politics, suggesting that Clinton did what Democrats need to do: redirect the debate about history and progress on the terror war:

Bill Clinton's eruption on Fox News last weekend over questions about his administration's handling of terrorism was a long time coming and has political implications that go beyond this fall's elections.

By choosing to intervene in the terror debate in a way that no one could miss, Clinton forced an argument about the past that had, up to now, been largely a one-sided propaganda war waged by the right. The conservative movement understands the political value of controlling the interpretation of history. Now, their control is finally being contested.

How long have Clinton's resentments been simmering? We remember the period immediately after Sept. 11 as a time of national unity in which partisanship melted away. That is largely true, especially because Democrats rallied behind President Bush. For months following the attacks, Democrats did not raise questions about why they had happened on Bush's watch.

But not everyone was nonpartisan. On Oct. 4, 2001, a mere three weeks and a couple of days after the towers fell and the Pentagon was hit, there was Rush Limbaugh arguing on The Wall Street Journal's op-ed page: "If we're serious about avoiding past mistakes and improving national security, we can't duck some serious questions about Mr. Clinton's presidency''

To this day, I remain astonished at Limbaugh's gall -- and at his shrewdness. Republicans were arguing simultaneously that it was treasonous finger-pointing to question what Bush did or failed to do to prevent the attacks, but patriotic to go after Clinton. Thus did they build up a mythology that cast Bush as the tough hero in confronting the terrorist threat and Clinton as the shirker. Bad history. Smart politics....

And so Clinton exploded. My canvassing of Clinton insiders suggests two things about his Fox News outburst. First, he did not go into the studio knowing he would do it. There was, they say, a spontaneity to his anger. But, second, he had thought long and hard about comparisons between his record on terrorism and Bush's. He had his lines down pat from private musing about how he had been turned into a punching bag by the right. Something like this, one adviser said, was bound to happen eventually.

Sober moderate opinion will say what sober moderate opinion always says about an episode of this sort: Tut tut, Clinton looked un-presidential, we should worry about the future, not the past, blah, blah, blah.

But sober moderate opinion was largely silent as the right wing slashed and distorted Clinton's record on terrorism. It largely stood by as the Bush administration tried to intimidate its own critics into silence. As a result, the day-to-day political conversation was tilted toward a distorted view of the past. All the sins of omission and commission were piled onto Clinton while Bush was cast as the nation's angelic avenger. And as conservatives understand, our view of the past greatly influences what we do in the present.

A genuinely sober and moderate view would recognize that it's time the scales of history were righted. Propagandistic accounts need to be challenged, systematically and consistently. The debate needed a very hard shove. Clinton delivered it.

A genuinely sober view of the Clinton anti-terror record was provided earlier in the week by Ed Morrisey over at Captain's Quarters:

For five years, we have rehashed this long and embarrassing history of American cluelessness. It is a bipartisan history, with both Republicans and Democrats arguing at various times that administrations used terrorism as an excuse for their political benefit. All it does is poison the atmosphere and allow hyperpartisans to play gotcha games with political opponents.

The time has come -- it has long since come -- for that history to become just that: history. None of us can pretend that Bill Clinton could ever have declared war on al-Qaeda in the manner Bush did without having a 9/11-type event as a catalyst. Not only would the Left have screamed much as they do now, albeit without the Hugo Chavez-type conspiratorial thinking, Republicans would have never given Clinton the kind of support needed to send American troops into Afghanistan. The political climate had been thoroughly poisoned by the time of the African bombings and Congress would never have put aside its deathmatch with Clinton to unite in a war effort, especially against a band of terrorists most Americans didn't know existed.

All of this is prologue to 9/11, and none of the debate changes the fact that two decades of leadership dropped the ball on the rise of Islamist terrorism. Blaming one without blaming them all has solved nothing and teaches nothing. More to the point, it divides the nation for no purpose, and five years after 9/11, it's time we stopped allowing it.

We have all the investigations and tell-all books we will ever need. We have all formed our opinions. None of us will have them changed at this point. What we need to discuss now is what we do from here, a much more pressing debate that has actual real-world consequences, and we can't have that debate successfully until we stop the useless sniping about pre-9/11 failures.
While admirable, I don't know if I completely agree with Morissey, for the more I think of it -- considering all the media attention to the pre-Bush terror fight as of late -- it's a good thing the Clinton administration has come under fire. The United States missed the chance to decaptitate al Qaeda under Clinton's watch. President Bush has got the military, political, and legal momentum heading in the right direction. We have taken the fight to the terrorists, and we haven't had an attack on American soil since 2001. Bush has made lots of mistakes, but now at least some of the blame-gaming is apportioning attacks to both the left and right. There's a partisanship to this war that is not healthy, I agree, but until both sides commit to a bipartisan truce (in foreign policy politics stops at the water's edge?), the Republicans need to stay on the political offensive.

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