Bush's catastrophic allergy to Clinton.

Politics and policy.
March 23 2004 5:42 PM

Fatal in Difference

Bush's catastrophic allergy to Clinton.

A tainted man?
A tainted man?

Every once in a while, in the course of spinning the issue of the day, an administration accidentally betrays its broader mentality. Six weeks ago on Meet the Press, President Bush revealed his abstract notion of reality. Three weeks ago in his re-election ads, Bush displayed a confidence unhinged from facts and circumstances. This week, in response to criticism of its terrorism policy by a former Bush aide, the administration is betraying a third fundamental flaw: a categorical aversion to the ideas of the Clinton years.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The criticism comes from Richard Clarke, the man who coordinated Bush's terrorism and cyberterrorism policies for two years after serving Presidents Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton in similar capacities. In a new book and an interview on 60 Minutes, Clarke accuses the current Bush White House of brushing aside his warnings about al-Qaida before 9/11. How has the administration responded? Let's look at four examples. First, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on Good Morning America:

[Clarke] was the counterterrorism czar when the al-Qaida was strengthening in the '90s. … And those years of dealing with al-Qaida and trying to quote, "roll it back"—that was not acceptable to the president. … The president was the one who was saying, "When am I going have a strategy to eliminate al-Qaida?" Dick Clarke had an open door to me. … And he used it from time to time. But we needed a strategy to deal with al-Qaida that was different than what had been tried. We needed real military options, not pinpricks.

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Next, Vice President Dick Cheney's interview on Rush Limbaugh's radio show:

We're operating, obviously, with a very different policy [from Clinton's]. Tending to treat these matters primarily as law enforcement problems prior to 9/11, that in no way slowed down the terrorists. … [Clarke] was the head of counterterrorism for several years there in the '90s, and I didn't notice that they had any great success dealing with the terrorist threat.

Next, White House spokesman Scott McClellan at his daily press briefing:

The very first major policy directive of this administration was to develop a comprehensive strategy to eliminate al-Qaida—not roll it back, as some had previously called for, but to eliminate al-Qaida. … [Clarke] was talking about rolling back al-Qaida. We were focused on eliminating al-Qaida. … We didn't feel it was sufficient to simply roll back al-Qaida. We pursued a policy to eliminate al-Qaida.

Finally, a White House statement issued Sunday night:

The President specifically told Dr. Rice that he was "tired of swatting flies" and wanted to go on the offense against al Qaeda, rather than simply waiting to respond. … NSC Deputies, the second-ranking officials in the NSC departments, met frequently between March and September 2001 to decide the many complex issues involved in the development of the comprehensive strategy against al Qaeda. … Although the issues involved were complex, the President's team completed the new strategy in less than six months and had the strategy ready to go to the President on September 4.

Notice what these four statements dismiss: Law enforcement. Pinpricks. Rolling it back. Swatting flies. That was why Clarke couldn't get a hearing. His ideas were too partial, too ad hoc, too Clintonesque. Bush wanted a bigger approach: Comprehensive. Strategy. Eliminate. Different. His "comprehensive strategy" was delivered on Sept. 4, 2001. Is the White House embarrassed that it spent those six months studying the "many complex issues involved in the development of the comprehensive strategy" instead of swatting the "flies" that would kill 3,000 Americans a week later? No. It's proud.

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