Tuesday, April 5, 2011
If Bill Clinton Had It to Do Over Again
In September 2003 Bill Clinton came to Monterey to do a program for the Panetta Institute. At the question-and-answer session afterward, he was asked, if you could have one thing in your presidency back to do over again, what would it be? His answer was instantaneous, and probably not what you expected.
Rwanda, he said. He was still haunted, nearly ten years later, by what had happened, by his failure to grasp the significance of it in time, and by his hindsight belief that a reasonable application of American force could have prevented at least the greater part of the genocide.
I was there when he said it, and have been flashing back on it a lot over the past couple of weeks as I follow the public discourse over President Obama’s handling of the situation in the Middle East, particularly Libya. Almost no one making noise — regardless of political persuasion — likes what he’s doing, but what Richard Nixon used to refer to as the Silent Majority seems to be largely supportive.
This may be one instance where the majority has it right. Most Americans know next to nothing about the Middle East, so the Obama approach, which could be characterized as cautious right-mindedness, probably strikes them as being a sensible way of dealing with an intractable problem. After all, the only alternatives are boldness or inaction. Boldness, when you’re flying blindfolded through a snowstorm, is not a good idea. Doing nothing can put you in the position of Clinton with Rwanda.
It’s probably not a bad idea to give a president the benefit of the doubt in the case of an unexpected crisis with a lot of unknowns. I believe George W. Bush was a bad president and fully expect history to vindicate me, yet I’ll cut him a break on a couple of things.
For instance, from the available evidence, it’s pretty clear that his administration took a dilatory attitude toward terrorism before 9/11 and didn’t act with urgency in the weeks before when there was a lot of chatter about something big about to happen. That said, it’s not at all clear that a more aggressive approach would have stopped the atrocity. It would have taken the ratiocination of Sherlock Holmes to guess at the actual plot, and mounting a response based on deductive inferences would have been a hard sell.
President Obama has had more stuff come at him out of nowhere than any president since Harry Truman, and it will probably be years before we can ascertain with any certainty how well he handled it. We live, however, in a society that wants its news and commentary right now, as things happen. Most of the time that simply leads to bad reporting and even worse opinion.
Rwanda was a fairly simple issue compared to what’s happening in the Middle East now. Clinton was an undeniably smart guy with good impulses. And he messed up. Every president does, on more than one thing. It’s the nature of the job. At least Clinton recognized it and admitted it.
If Barack Obama lives as long as he should, he’ll be able to look back on his presidency and see its successes and failures with some clarity. He’ll have regrets, to be sure, but will they be because he acted too boldly or too slowly? We certainly don’t know now, and perhaps the question we should be asking is the one Napoleon asked about his officer candidates: “But is he lucky?”