The Washington Post features an opinion piece today looking at the military responses to terrorism from both Clinton and Bush. Among its conclusions, the column points out the lack of military resolve from the Clinton White House:
The Clinton record on military operations was clear: frequent resort to low-risk cruise-missile strikes and high-level bombings, but shunning any form of decisive operations involving ground troops in areas of high risk. The Clinton White House was the most casualty phobic administration in modern times, and this fear of body bags was not lost on Osama bin Laden. Indeed, al Qaeda rhetoric regularly “proved” that the Americans were vulnerable to terrorism by invoking the hasty cut-and-run after 18 Army soldiers died in the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” events in Somalia — a strategy developed and implemented, ironically enough, by the same Richard Clarke who torments the Bush team today.
So Albright is correct that Operation Enduring Freedom, the campaign to topple the Taliban, was not possible with a commander in chief who was afraid to lead the public to accept the human costs of war.
This suggests, however, that the critical event was not simply Sept. 11, 2001, which changed the public’s perceptions, but also the 2000 election, which changed the commander in chief. President Bush came into office convinced that the casualty phobia of his predecessor had made America a tempting target, a paper tiger. When terrorists struck the twin towers and the Pentagon, Bush interpreted it as proof that America looked weak.
Clinton presided over a time of prosperity, and it’s obvious that he didn’t want to confront us with the grim reality of a military engagement. It’s also obvious that, absent a September 11-type attack, Congress would never have allowed him to engage in a military attack.
Bush, presiding over a tanked economy and a homeland attack, however, used the military heavily. But saying that Bush somehow was not afraid to “lead the public to accept the human costs” is disingenuous. The Bush administration has little to say about the human costs. When was the last time you heard them reference the hundreds of lost soldiers and thousands of dead civilians? They constantly divert our attention. The Bush doctrine has killed a huge number of civilian lives. The Clinton doctrine refused to take action if civilians could be killed–an admirable ideal, but not realistic. I don’t think he had the strange combination of judgment and ability to set emotion aside that’s necessary to be commander in chief. I’d certainly never be able to do that job — I’d be too pacifist.
Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between the two of them?