Is Bill To Blame? 

Was it Clinton, or his GOP pursuers, who let bin Laden escape?

Bill Clinton recently convened a telephone conference of his ex-aides to deal, among other things, with what he sees as unfair blame for failing to deal with Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization.

It's not as if the administration did nothing at all. On August 20, 1998, Clinton authorized a missile attack on an installation in Afghanistan where bin Laden was supposed to be. Bin Laden narrowly escaped -- a matter of hours, we are told.

After that, however, nothing much was done. U.S. intelligence continued to track bin Laden for the purpose of killing him -- a presidential directive to that effect had already been signed -- but it seems fair to say that the Clinton administration at the highest level was not singularly focused on this aim.

On the other hand, bin Laden's focus, as we now know, was both singular and effective.

In this respect, the Clinton administration can be -- and has been -- blamed for the September 11th attacks. Simply put, it did not do what it had to do. At the same time, though, blame has to be assigned to the Reagan administration, which backed down in Lebanon after the 1983 terrorist attack on the Marine compound in Beirut, and the first Bush administration, which prematurely ended the Gulf War, leaving Saddam Hussein still in power and in possession of his attack helicopters.

Not surprisingly, terrorists, including bin Laden, concluded that the United States was simply unwilling to take casualties. This perception was only reinforced by the Clinton administration's abrupt retreat from Somalia in 1993 after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed there -- and its stuttering approach to Haiti and, of course, Bosnia. For too long it hurled nothing but speeches at the practitioners of genocide.

But when it comes to bin Laden, a little context is in order. The missile attack took place in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clinton had just testified to the grand jury. Before that, a sample of blood had been taken from him to prove that it was he who had stained Lewinsky's dress. He was facing impeachment, and, by way of understatement, his marriage was under stress.

You may say that this was all his own fault. To a degree, true enough. But it is also true that he was sustaining an unprecedented attack on his presidency, an effort to oust him for reasons that had nothing to do with abuse of power. What's more, the entire impeachment process had been propelled by an effort to "get" Clinton -- the "vast right-wing conspiracy" of Hillary Clinton's telling and accurate phrase.

If blame is to be apportioned for what happened or didn't happen around that time -- the lagging, distracted effort to eliminate bin Laden, for instance -- then the uber partisans of Washington have to take some responsibility. It was they, with the connivance of the Supreme Court, who manufactured a sexual harassment lawsuit out of Paula Jones' uncorroborated charge of boorish behavior and converted it into an assault on the presidency itself.

If you believe that Clinton could compartmentalize in the manner of your computer, then no ill effects came of this scuzzy effort to oust the president. If you believe that Lewinsky and Jones were in Clinton's "C" drive and bin Laden and everything else -- the Israeli-Palestinian situation, for instance -- in his "D" drive, then there is no reason the president could not have functioned smoothly.

But common sense screams otherwise. And if that is not persuasive, you can -- as I have -- ask Clinton's aides or his visitors about his mental state at the time. Consumed with his own plight, they will tell you -- and understandably so.

That long, arduous, and contemptible effort to shame the president from office did real damage. It lowered the bar to impeachment and it weakened the country at a moment when, as we now know, it was in peril.

No doubt Clinton's legacy suffered, and no number of conference calls can change that. But if history faults him for not focusing more on bin Laden, then it will also take into account the reasons. Say what you will about history, it does not compartmentalize.

Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. His work frequently appears in the Flyer.


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