ABC’s controversial miniseries, “The Path to 9/11,” raised many questions about our government’s ability to protect its citizens. While the show did not intend to direct blame at any one person, senior Clinton administration officials – particularly former National Security Director Sandy Berger – certainly took exception to the miniseries’s version of history. Even Bill Clinton – in an ironic call to honesty – challenged ABC President Robert Iger to “tell the truth” in the miniseries. Why would Clinton, Hollywood’s best friend, be so hot under the collar about five hours of television? Because despite all the scene-cutting and disclaimers ABC extended him, Clinton is astute enough to realize that his presidency is still searching for its legacy.
When historians look back at Clinton’s tenure, what is there to remember outside of the Lewinsky scandal? Surely, the one positive development they have to mention is the performance of the economy during his watch. America experienced an economic boom during the ’90s thanks to some of the policies implemented by the Clintonistas. But supervising a booming economy didn’t enhance Calvin Coolidge’s legacy, did it?
What about legislative achievements? Clinton loves to claim credit for balancing the budget for the first time in decades and “ending welfare as we know it,” but a fair analysis would have to give the Republican-controlled Congress credit for pushing Clinton toward those worthwhile goals. Even if Clinton received full credit for balancing the budget and reforming welfare, he still would not have a monumental legislative accomplishment in the same league as FDR’s New Deal or Johnson’s Great Society.
Clinton pinned his legacy as a diplomat on mediating an agreement between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel. During Clinton’s eight years in office, no foreign official visited the White House more than Yasser Arafat. In the end, after being offered nearly all of what he said he wanted, Arafat left the bargaining table with nothing to show for Clinton’s alleged diplomatic talents.
Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR and Truman earned grandiose legacies by successfully guiding our nation through war. Clinton’s tenure as commander in chief saw no significant use of military force – but rather a focus on using the military as a means of social experimentation. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” became part of the American lexicon because Clinton’s one goal for the military was to make its culture more accepting of alternative lifestyles.
Additionally, Osama bin Laden cites Clinton’s removal of U.S. forces from Somalia after the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident as a rallying point for radical Muslims. Bin Laden discovered that America has a weak stomach for casualties on television – a weakness he and his cadre continue to exploit today.
However, what Clinton’s reaction to the miniseries tells us most clearly about his perception of his presidency is that he’s terrified of being labeled asleep at the wheel. According to the 9/11 Commission report, from the first World Trade Center attack, occurring just weeks into the Clinton presidency, until the attack on the USS Cole – the last al-Qaida attack during the Clinton administration – al-Qaida attacked American interests six times, expanded operations from regional to worldwide and formed a safe haven in conjunction with the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Not an impressive resume for a president who claims to have done all he could to combat terrorism.
Clinton knows the importance of the visual. Visual images – particularly movies – can change our perceptions on any given topic. Following the release of Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” Americans flooded their elected representatives with requests to re-open the investigation into the Kennedy assassination. Michael Moore released “Fahrenheit 911” to persuade Americans not to vote for President Bush. Both films have questionable fidelity to the truth and their goals were the same – changing the public’s perception of history.
President Clinton left office as a mediocre president with approval numbers in the low sixties. At the time, the American public did not blame him for the rise of al-Qaida as a global terrorist network. Those who viewed “The Path to 9/11” had their perceptions of his legacy change in that regard.
The miniseries portrayed an administration that covered our protectors in the FBI and CIA with red tape. The Clintonistas viewed global terrorism as a law-enforcement issue unworthy of military operations. Due to concerns that bombings would negatively affect our world image, the administration passed on numerous opportunities to bomb al-Qaida training camps and to hit high-ranking leaders. As a result, bin Laden lived, al-Qaida grew and America slept through the threat escalation. This was the bridge that President Clinton built to the 21st century.
Stiglich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org./>