Blaming the attacks of Sept. 11 on anyone besides the perpetrators is absurd. And the organization we suspect is al-Qaida. Yet right-leaning commentators, unable to curb their dislike of Bill Clinton, have sought to implicate the former president for his failure to capture those terrorists three years ago. In doing so, however, these pundits place themselves in precisely the same camp as those they abhor—the left (who blame the attacks of Sept 11. on past American foreign policy). Bad or inadequate foreign policy is unforgivable. So is outright distraction from foreign affairs. But neither justifies or explains an atrocity.
That said, recent words of former Clinton officials—troubled, perhaps, by a sense of responsibility for not having destroyed al-Qaida in 1998—are immensely revealing. (This was the year when the terrorist organization killed 224 people in Kenya and Tanzania.) One former official says that part of the Aug. 29, 1998 attack on al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan—66 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. vessels stationed in the Indian Ocean—missed the leaders by "only an hour." (Bin Laden had apparently attended a conference in one of these camps.) Only an hour—what does that mean? An hour late is another way of saying off-target. But were all the missiles equally late? Was it too cloudy for U.S. satellites to see al-Qaida's ringleaders fleeing from the targeted camps prior to the attack? And if the ringleaders left an hour earlier, they could have been some 200 miles away when the missiles exploded. Moreover, if the missiles were an hour late, what prevented them from being one hour early—in other words, on time? When did they discover they were an hour late—the same day or several weeks later? And are they so sure it was just an hour? Surely no one is suggesting that al-Qaida was forewarned of the attack—unless they had spotters hidden among the mountains. Lastly, was a cruise missile attack the best plan? I doubt it. Most likely, it was the only plan. So, rather than say the missiles were only an hour late, which explains nothing, it would have been wiser not to defend a plan that had little chance of success. Better to have emphasized instead how little could actually have been done at that time.
Why? In Aug. 1998 would the Republican Congressional leadership have supported a request from President Clinton to send American troops to nations bordering Afghanistan? Of course not. Did the same congressional leadership have a plan of their own? Not one they have chosen to divulge. Do we blame Congress for the attacks of Sept. 11? Absolutely not. Yet, as a letter writer to andrewsullivan.com pointed out earlier this week, Congress, fully as powerful as the president in several crucial foreign policy and defense arenas, chose to be wildly distracted that summer. It was the year of Clinton's humiliation, when Congress pressed itself into a campaign to remove him office for his private transgressions, and the year Kenneth Starr compiled his well-known report. And, yes, I do blame the former president for getting himself in to trouble in the first place, Congress for its overreaction, and Starr for his ineptitude and his inability to distinguish between personal expediency and political gain. Starr's report was released by the same congressional leadership on, lest one forget, Sept. 11, 1998—a day when America forgot the rest of the world existed. Yet none of this explains Sept. 11, 2001, a day which neither America nor the rest of the world will ever forget.