Clarke's revisionism aside, Clinton too dropped the ball on terrorism

April 08, 2004|By Linda Chavez

WASHINGTON -- Condoleezza Rice faces not just the 9/11 commission but the specter of Richard A. Clarke, the disgruntled former White House counterterrorism expert who did his best to undermine the credibility of his former boss when he testified before the commission March 24.

The main thrust of Mr. Clarke's testimony was that Ms. Rice and the entire Bush team were insufficiently attentive to terrorism as an imminent threat. And the media played right along, parroting Mr. Clarke's criticism with front-page news stories questioning Ms. Rice's pre-9/11 judgment.

That criticism might have been more persuasive had he been equally hard on the Clinton administration, for which he worked for eight years. But, no, he gave it high marks.

I decided to do a little research to see how the media portrayed the Clinton administration's priorities. I looked back over eight years of stories in which Ms. Rice's predecessors, Anthony Lake and Samuel R. Berger, were mentioned in stories that also included references to terrorism or Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida, to see whether they were out sounding the alarm on these threats. Only 278 such stories appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune. And most of the mentions of terrorism referred to attacks against Israel or other non-U.S. targets.

Although several terrorist attacks against Americans occurred during Bill Clinton's tenure, the military response was spotty at best.

But it isn't just that the Clinton administration didn't do very much to strike back at terrorists. Mr. Clinton's national security advisers weren't all that outspoken on the issue, either. In 1996, for example, Mr. Lake gave a major speech to the Chicago Foreign Relations Council in which he mentioned terrorism, almost in passing, as a modern threat, along with drug trafficking and managing environmental disasters. The foreign policy crises he described as "the most urgent" were "repression in Haiti, the war in Bosnia and the containment of Iraq."

The truth is, no one -- not President Bush or Ms. Rice, and certainly not Mr. Clinton or his advisers -- fully understood how grave a threat al-Qaida, bin Laden and other Islamist terrorists posed to America until Sept. 11, 2001. We know now, and the true test of leadership is how our leaders responded once the terrorists struck. And here both Mr. Bush and Mr. Rice look pretty good compared with their predecessors, Mr. Clarke's revisionist history notwithstanding.

Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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