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Clinton's Got Right Stuff, but at Wrong Time

January 28, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

NEW YORK — At a conference last week on America's relations with the Muslim world, Bill Clinton vividly displayed his analytical brilliance. But he also demonstrated why George W. Bush may have been better suited to respond to the crisis of Sept. 11.

The long day of discussions with diplomats and academics at a seminar sponsored by his post-presidential foundation provided a perfect stage for Clinton's intellectual strengths. Though the former president looked exhausted after a weeklong trip to the Middle East, he was effortlessly--almost casually--dazzling.

Responding to a series of panels from notes he jotted on a legal pad, Clinton summarized the contending viewpoints and isolated the weak points in the arguments with precision; his insights were sharp, and his political instincts keen (as when he politely but unmistakably slapped down speakers who blamed Muslim hostility toward America largely on U.S. support for Israel). He juggled sweeping concepts and obscure facts (the percentage of Palestinians killed in the intifada who are under 18) without ever breaking a plate.

He was also indefatigable. By 6 p.m., some around the room were starting to nod off; Clinton was still nodding in agreement with arguments he liked. By that point, Bush probably would have been rolling his eyes, in the unlikely event that someone had strapped him into his chair and kept him in the room at all.

Yet, at day's end, it wasn't clear that the billowing clouds of talk from the seminar's participants--glinting as they were with telling facts, deep historical knowledge and sharp observations--offered any better guidance for responding to Sept. 11 than what Bush recalled as his first response: "I knew . . . there would be hell to pay for attacking America."

As Clinton demonstrated at the conference, his instinct is to master the complexity of every situation; he takes apart domestic and global problems like a tinkerer dismantling a car engine. In the discussion, he showed the capacity to understand the perspective of both sides in every dispute; to excavate the root causes in every grievance; to recognize the subtle misunderstandings that divide every culture.

That sensitivity, coupled with a ferocious persistence, made Clinton a skilled peacemaker in Northern Ireland (and nearly the Middle East). But it's not clear those skills are what America most wanted--or needed--after Sept. 11.

The directness of Bush's response--the unwavering determination to catch and punish those responsible--more precisely captured the nation's mood. After Sept. 11, many Americans may feel it is more important to be feared than loved in the parts of the world where terrorism breeds. Bush seems to understand that. Clinton probably would rather be feared and loved.

The issue isn't whether Clinton would have used force to retaliate for the attacks. He demonstrated in Bosnia and Kosovo (over enormous Republican resistance) that he was willing to use military power to advance U.S. goals. And no president would have accepted the outrage of Sept. 11 without delivering a powerful blow in response.

But it's likely that Clinton would have felt a need to balance force with gestures to reach out to the Muslim and Arab world. Those ideas have a time and place. But this isn't it. The United States doesn't have an obligation to reward societies that have incubated anti-American extremism by increasing our aid to them.

In the long run, to drain the swamps where terrorism festers, the West does have to promote more opportunity and greater freedom in the Arab world, as Clinton has been suggesting. But in the near term, America is probably better off sending the unambiguous message Bush has been stressing: that any government will pay a price for allowing anti-American extremists to operate.

Likewise, Clinton is surely right when he says that building lasting security "will require much more of us than a strategy rooted in military and law enforcement efforts, no matter how successful they are." But while we are still working to convince hostile states that we are committed to pursuing "military and law enforcement efforts," it diffuses our message to label those efforts insufficient. Eventually America will have to win hearts and minds. Now it has to capture terrorists.

The clarity of that overriding imperative has worked to Bush's strengths. He's most comfortable proceeding on a straightforward path toward an unambiguous goal. His greatest asset as a leader is his willingness to make decisions and not look back--in effect, not to be overly troubled by the complexity that Clinton can puzzle over like a jeweler inspecting a stone. Sometimes understanding the downside of every decision can be as much burden as blessing.

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