Orin's post raises the question of whether the Republicans supported Bill Clinton's efforts to get Osama Bin Laden back in 1998, or whether they instead thought that he was "wagging the dog" and being too aggressive. As some of my own recent posts amply demonstrate, I am no fan of the Republican Party these days. Nonetheless, the record shows that most Republican leaders strongly supported Clinton's August 1998 missile attacks against Al Qaeda, and some actually called on him to act more aggressively. This August 21, 1998 Washington Post article documents the Republican reaction in detail. Consider the words of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, then the most powerful and prominent conservative Republican politician in the country:
I think the president did exactly the right thing," House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said of the bombing attacks. "By doing this we're sending the signal there are no sanctuaries for terrorists........"
Gingrich dismissed any possibility that Clinton may have ordered the attacks to divert attention from the [Monica Lewinsky] scandal. Instead, he said, there was an urgent need for a reprisal following the Aug. 7 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
"Anyone who watched the film of the bombings, anyone who saw the coffins come home knows better than to question this timing," Gingrich said. "It was done as early as possible to send a message to terrorists across the globe that killing Americans has a cost. It has no relationship with any other activity of any kind."
The Washington Post article recounts statements of support by other top congressional Republicans, including Senator Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Although it also notes that a few Republicans, such as Senators Arlen Specter and Dan Coats did question Clinton's motives, it summarizes the overall Republican reaction as "warm support for [Clinton's] ordering anti-terrorist bombing attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan yesterday from many of the same lawmakers who have criticized him harshly as a leader critically weakened by poor judgment and reckless behavior in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal."
Even more interesting is the fact that some prominent Republican leaders, such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman and future CIA Director Porter Goss not only endorsed Clinton's actions but urged him to go further:
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who in recent days has been very critical of Clinton on the Lewinsky matter, also supported the bombing raids, noting, "In the past I was worried that this administration didn't take this threat seriously enough, and didn't take Osama bin Laden seriously enough; I'm going to support him, wish him well and back him up."
And urge him on, a view supported bluntly by House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.). "If anything, this was somewhat overdue, and I'm not talking days, but months and years. This needs to be the first punch we land. We need to land more." [emphasis mine]
Would that Clinton - and after him the pre-9/11 George W. Bush - had taken Goss' advice! The article also quotes Senator John McCain as claiming that Clinton had unduly neglected the terrorist threat.
The seemingly contrary quotes in the Salon article Orin links to are either 1) criticisms of Clinton's December 1998 strike on Iraq or his 1999 war in Kossovo rather than the August 1998 attack on Al Qaeda, or 2) quotations from the small minority of Republicans who did indeed criticize the August strikes, but cited without noting the broader context of strong support for Clinton's actions by the the most powerful Republicans in DC.
I do not mean to suggest that the Republicans were blameless. They, like President Clinton, did not give the Al Qaeda threat the priority it deserved. And I believed at the time and still believe now that they were wrong to seek Clinton's impeachment for a relatively minor offense at a time when both Congress and the president should have been devoting their full attention to frying more important fish, including Bin Laden. However, it is simply not true that Republicans opposed Clinton's efforts to get Bin Laden or that most of them claimed he was just "wagging the dog." To the contrary, most Republicans strongly supported Clinton's August 1998 missile strikes and some actually claimed that he wasn't going far enough.
UPDATE: It's worth pointing out the contrast between the above record and what President Clinton said in his recent interview with Chris Wallace:
I think it's very interesting that all the conservative Republicans, who now say I didn't do enough, claimed that I was too obsessed with bin Laden. All of President Bush's neo-cons thought I was too obsessed with bin Laden. They had no meetings on bin Laden for nine months after I left office. All the right-wingers who now say I didn't do enough said I did too much — same people.
Note that Clinton does not say that "a few" or even "some" conservative Republicans said he was "too obsessed" with Bin Laden, but that "all" of them had done so. In reality, most Republicans supported Clinton's strikes against Al Qaeda and some urged him to go further. Even the minority who questioned Clinton's motives did not claim that he should have focused on Bin Laden less, but instead argued that he was overly focused on protecting himself from the fallout of the Lewinsky scandal. Bill Clinton is not the demon that some conservatives make him out to be and his administration had a number of important achievements. Unfortunately, the fight against terror was not one of them, and Clinton's retrospective defense of his record on the issue is also not one of his finest hours.
Related Posts (on one page):
- Did the Republicans claim that Clinton was too aggressive in going after Bin Laden?
- GOP Leaders Attack President's War on Terror As Mere Political Ploy: