Former President Bill Clinton, never one to let truth stand in the way of a good line, has decided to reincarnate himself as our tough, anti-terror president.
The man who ran away from military service and displayed striking contempt for our Armed Forces has now announced that he did more -- and would do more -- to combat Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda than anyone else. In his view, he should be recognized as the best man to fight that enemy.
Speaking to Chris Wallace on FOX News Sunday, Clinton made a bevy of startlingly anti-factual remarks. He announced, for instance, that conservatives had criticized him for obsessing about bin Laden during his presidency -- rather than the truth that he was roundly condemned for doing next to nothing about this serious threat to American security.
Clinton blamed the Bush administration for failing to stop the Al Qaeda terrorists before 9/11, saying that the administration had eight months to get bin Laden and didn't. That conveniently overlooks that Clinton's administration had eight years to do that job, with Al Qaeda using the last two of those years to plan 9/11.
One of Clinton's bigger whoppers was this declaration about the fight against bin Laden: "I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since. And if I were still president, we'd have 20,000 more troops [in Afghanistan] trying to kill him."
The man who was in the Soviet Union demonstrating against the American military during Vietnam, who as president left our Armed Forces short on so many fronts, now is -- in his own 20/20 hindsight -- The Defense President. Now he criticizes the Bush administration for not doing enough, proclaims himself the champion of effective military action, and implies none too subtly that the fight against terrorism would go better if we had a Clinton in the White House instead of a Bush.
This isn't mere spin. It's full-scale invention.
Before anyone starts taking our most recent ex-president too seriously, let's review the bidding. Clinton wasn't the president who ordered the Armed Forces to go after bin Laden without reservation, to get him "dead or alive." He wasn't the one who sent thousands of troops after Al Qaeda and nations that harbor and support terrorists
Instead, President Clinton responded to attacks on our troops in Somalia by withdrawing, and responded to attacks by Al Qaeda on our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya by bombing the aspirin factory of an innocent pharmaceutical firm in Sudan. He reacted to Al Qaeda's bombing of the USS Cole by lobbing a few cruise missiles at empty tents in the desert. He turned down Sudanese offers to cooperate in tracking down and capturing bin Laden.
The bipartisan 9/11 commission concluded that -- far from doing more than anyone to kill the brutal murderer who now is the international face of terrorism -- President Clinton had flatly refused to allow the military or CIA to kill Usama bin Laden. Clinton's instructions were that bin Laden should be taken, if at all, alive not dead. CIA officials reported that this instruction cut the chance of success in half.
That is not to say that the Clinton administration wasn't in a better position to eliminate bin Laden. Evidence before the commission showed that the Clinton administration had live footage of Usama bin Laden at a camp in Afghanistan in the Fall of 2000, a year before the 9/11 attacks, but didn't act.
NBC's Tom Brokaw, playing the tape on-air in 2004, noted rightly that this was an enormous opportunity lost. Having gotten bin Laden in your sights isn't something to brag about if you weren't willing to pull the trigger.
Clinton, like all presidents, had some top-notch advisers, including some thoughtful advisers on military and foreign affairs. But he is quintessentially a temporizer, one who always has had difficulty reaching a conclusion and sticking to it, and not someone who was terribly interested in either preserving our military power or using it effectively in world affairs. He'd much rather talk one on one with world leaders, persuaded he could convince them to do what he wanted by the concerted application of charm.
Talk and compromise -- not clear moral principles and the will to do whatever is needed to support them -- were the hallmarks of the Clinton administration, reflecting the person at the top. Nothing Clinton says now can change that, though he still evinces conviction that he can talk us into anything -- just as he thought he could when he denied point blank having had anything to do with Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton always has been the one who, caught in a compromising position, would disarmingly ask, as the parody has it, "what are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?" His instinct for lying, even under oath, earned him the second presidential impeachment in American history.
Contrast Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Consider, for example, their different approaches to Yasser Arafat.
The Clintons cozy relationship with the Arafats was symbolized by Mrs. Clinton's embrace of Mrs. Arafat -- on stage immediately after a speech by Mrs. Arafat condemning Israel. President Clinton's relationship, though less picturesque, was no less close. Arafat was the world leader Clinton met with most often. Clinton was certain he could talk Arafat into making peace in the Middle East -- and secure Clinton's legacy. Clinton invited Arafat and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak to the now infamous Camp David summit meeting of 2000. He pressured Barak to offer heroic compromises, only to have Arafat at the last minute turn to intifada to try to get more. In the end, Clinton's charm wasn't enough.
President Bush, in sharp distinction, saw Arafat as a terrorist and refused to meet with him unless he renounced the destruction of Israel as a goal and terror against civilians as a means. Bush, not Clinton, assured Israel of our full support against terrorism and meant it.
Clinton realizes that history's judgments often are shaped as much by what is written in the aftermath of an event as they are by the facts of the event. The Kennedy family relentlessly spun the myth of Camelot to turn a failed presidency into the fantasy of an American Renaissance. Having long modeled himself after JFK (minus the fashionable, universally admired, classy wife), Clinton now seeks to redefine his presidency -- and pave the way for his ultimate revenge: Hillary in office for "Clinton, Act Three."
Presidents often find it hard to leave the stage. The day of Bush's first inauguration, Clinton lingered for hours at Andrews Air Force base trying to hang on to the attention he had so enjoyed as president. He still seeks the limelight.
But desperation to be noticed after leaving office, to have the respect and affection Clinton craves, isn't a substitute for doing the right thing when in office -- any more than lies are a substitute for honesty, or indecision a suitable alternative to moral courage.
On the golf course, Bill Clinton is known for his dislike of playing his ball where it lies, scoring honestly, and taking his lumps as the rest of us duffers must. He makes his own score, always a good deal better than the real number.
Someone else should be trusted to do the scoring when it comes to Clinton's time in office. In the history books, he deserves to be counted as the President who did not protect us against Al Qaeda, who left the impression they could attack us without penalty, whose wasted opportunities contributed to the travesty of 9/11.
Tough talk now should not be allowed to obscure that fact. Lies now should not go unanswered.