When we last left off, our 42nd President was complaining stridently about the Monica Lewinsky affair being made public, all the attention it garnered, the “mad prosecutor on the loose,” and continuing to obfuscate over the nature of his affair with Lewinsky.
After discussing the problems of terrorism with Al-Qaeda that was occurring at the same time the Lewinsky scandal broke, the interviewer (David Dimbleby) grilled him on the matter of terrorism during the time of his presidency. At one point during this segment, Bill Clinton claims to have come the closest yet to capturing Osama bin Laden, and claims that the FBI and CIA gave him the all-clear, but didn’t once mention the “wall” that existed between the two intelligence agencies per the 9/11 Commission’s findings, which Clinton did nothing about:
Dimbleby: Your critics say that you gave the action against terrorism and against Al-Qaeda a low priority. I know the 9/11 Commission is sitting on this, [but] if you had known what we now know about terrorism and 9/11, would you have acted more toughly than you did?
Clinton: Well, first of all, it’s not fair to say I gave it a low priority. I … I had a piece of sweeping anti-terrorism legislation for the Congress in 1994. After the Oklahoma City bombing, I strengthened it and we took another year to pass it in the Congress.
If you go all the way back to 1993, you will see we were bringing terrorists back home, we were preventing terrorist attacks. We prevented terrorist attacks in the Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, the U.N. Building, the Los Angeles airport … We broke up twenty Al-Qaeda cells. I came closer to getting Osama bin Laden with that air action in 1998 than anybody has since, apparently. Erm, I think that the question is, could we have invaded Afghanistan based on the African Embassy bombings? I don’t think so.
Dimbleby: Why not?
Clinton: Well, because, I mean in theory we could have, but we would have been all alone, everybody would have thought we were crazy based on that. And then, could I have, would I have done more after the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000? And could I have, that’s the one big “if.” If … the FBI and CIA had agreed with me, even though my term was almost over and had told me that they agreed for sure that bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were responsible for the U.S.S. Cole, a finding they did not make until after I left office, I would have done more then.
Dimbleby: Do you expect the 9/11 Commission to be critical of what you did as President about terrorism?
Clinton: I think the 9/11 Commission can make up its own mind whether on both the attacks on Al-Qaeda and the strategy we adopted, and on the question of homeland defence. I did enough. I’ll leave that to others to judge. But all I can tell you, it was a big priority with me, I never lost my concentration on it, and I worked on it for my first term.
What about Iraq? Clinton backed the aim behind the Iraq War but not the basis. Although he admits that he could have unilaterally invaded Iraq, he wanted U.N. weapons inspectors to have more time to finish the job. He also indicates that no WMDs have been found chiefly because weapons inspections resulted in removing most of Iraq’s capabilities to produce chemical or biological weapons.
Dimbleby: There’s a striking difference between your attitude towards Saddam Hussein and Iraq and that of your successor … Am I right in thinking that you thought that containment was the most effective way of restraining Saddam?
Clinton: Well, that was the policy of the previous Bush administration.
Dimbleby: And yours.
Clinton: Yes. For most of the time I was there, the idea was that his military is less than half the strength it was in the first Gulf War … We had these inspections going on and we were making progress and we were getting the chemical and biological agents and the laboratory capacity out of there and while he’s not a good man, he’s getting older, and eh, as long as we don’t lift the sanctions and let him rebuild his military power, than eventually we’ll get a change there.
Then in 1998, when Saddam kicked the inspectors out … Prime Minister [Tony] Blair and I bombed him for four days and we bombed the sites where we thought the chemical and biological materials would be. Because we didn’t get the inspectors back in, we had no idea if we destroyed all of it, half of it, ten percent of it, or none of it.
So then when President Bush went back to the U.N., after 9/11, to demand that the inspectors be let in, I strongly supported that. When President Bush asked for authority for the Senate to use force if Saddam didn’t cooperate with the U.N., I strongly supported that. My only difference … I thought, well, we’re never going to be able to do any consistent business with this guy. That’s different from invading him. You know, I said we ought to support the opposition elements and just keep working until we get a new leader.
So, I didn’t have any profound difference with the policy until it was decided to invade Iraq before the U.N. weapons inspection process was finished because Hans Blix … was very explicit when they weren’t fully cooperating and I thought we should get a chance to finish.
Dimbleby: So what you’re saying is you were opposed to the invasion of Iraq?
Clinton: What I am saying is … I would have supported the invasion of Iraq, whether or not we’d had U.N. opposition, if the U.N. inspectors had finished their job and Hans Blix had said they won’t cooperate … Now we are where we are, and you know, I’m an American first and the minute the President wants the investigation, I was for the troops and the mission and I did believe that when it was over we should have immediately moved to internationalise it. Finally, that has been done. We’re moving to give the sovereignty back to the Iraqis and that we have a new U.N. resolution for internationalising it. I think that they’re moving, er, in the right direction now. We still got a lot of tough days ahead, I mean, you know, but I think basically we’re moving in the right direction now.
After asking him about his relationship to Tony Blair, Dimbleby continues:
Dimbleby: But had it been you there in the White House, or Al Gore there in the White House, this wouldn’t have arisen, there wouldn’t have been an invasion of Iraq on these terms.
Clinton: No. But we might have had to invade anyway. It would just depend on what happened with the weapons inspections. But keep in mind, I had no problem with that. I never liked Saddam Hussein, we bombed him several times, but I just didn’t think he was a big threat as Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda …
So Clinton was for the war, but not for the war. Sounds like John Kerry. And wouldn’t you just know it, that’s exactly who Clinton endorsed:
Dimbleby: … Do you look to a Kerry victory to restore the domestic policies that you introduced or will we have to wait for a second Clinton presidency, in the form of President Hillary Clinton?
Clinton: Well, first of all, I support John Kerry. He’s a good man, he’s a good senator and I believe he’d be quite a good President … I think we will, I think he’d be an excellent president. I’ve got confidence not only in his views but in the psychological strengths and the experience he brings to the office; so I think that would help.
Finally, what about the genocide in Rwanda that occurred during the Clinton presidency?
Dimbleby: The role of the President is to define during his watch America’s place in the world and you have talked about crises coming at you all the time. Would you agree that America’s response to crises was very uneven, sent out an uncertain signal. For instance, you were prepared to use bombing raids to save Kosovo, [but] you weren’t prepared to lift a finger for Rwanda, where 800,000 people were massacred in a genocide.
Clinton: Well, I would agree to some extent that the response was uneven, but I would not agree with the characterization of it. Let me try to give a serious answer to that. It was predictably uneven because at the end of the Cold War, we no longer had a bipolar world. We had to figure out how we were going to do what I thought we should do. What I wanted America to do was to be the world’s leading force for peace and freedom and security and prosperity, helping to integrate this interdependent world into a more effective global community.
At the same time, we had obligations that we had inherited from before and we had limits on what we could do. We didn’t go into Bosnia as quickly as I wanted to, but that was mostly because of initial European reluctance … In Kosovo, all of the European allies were ready from the beginning … Everybody was ready to go, they knew what Milosevic was , the knew what he’d do, and they went immediately. And that led to the end of Milosevic …
In Rwanda, it, as I say over and over again, it’s one of my greatest regrets. But we look at it backwards and say, well, I had to know that seven or eight hundred thousand people could be killed with machetes in ninety days, and as far as I know, there’s no precedent for that in the history of the world.
Dimbleby: But the Red Cross was warning that this was happening at the time.
Clinton: … And that’s right. And I acknowledge that I think perhaps the greatest failures was none of us paid sufficient attention to it. It is one of my greatest regrets and I went to Rwanda and told them so … I tried never to make that mistake in Africa again. There is no question I could have saved lives if I had unilaterally gone in there, and we didn’t. I think it partly was the bad experience of Somalia, partly the pre-occupation with Bosnia at the time. Partly it was the pre-occupation with Haiti at the time … and we were trying to get in there.
The entire transcript from which this interview came can be accessed here.