The Yglesias-Lowry smackdown
The American Prospect‘s Matthew Yglesias and The National Review‘s Rich Lowry are having a war of words over the prescience of conservatives regarding the Clinton administration’s antiterrorism policy. Lowry has published Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years. In it, he writes: On September 11, Clinton’s most important legacy arrived in horrifying form, and ...
The American Prospect's Matthew Yglesias and The National Review's Rich Lowry are having a war of words over the prescience of conservatives regarding the Clinton administration's antiterrorism policy. Lowry has published Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years. In it, he writes:
The American Prospect‘s Matthew Yglesias and The National Review‘s Rich Lowry are having a war of words over the prescience of conservatives regarding the Clinton administration’s antiterrorism policy. Lowry has published Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years. In it, he writes:
On September 11, Clinton’s most important legacy arrived in horrifying form, and settled in a pile of rubble seven stories high in downtown Manhattan.
In a Q&A on NRO, Lowry elaborates:
Well, obviously, Osama bin Laden was responsible for 9/11. But the September 11th attacks were clearly Clinton’s most consequential legacy. The way he had hamstrung the CIA, handcuffed the FBI, neglected airport security, and, most importantly, left a nest of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan unmolested — knowing, knowing they were there — created the ticking time bomb that went off on September 11th. Should Bush have done more during the eight months he was in office? Absolutely. But much of his work would have been — and has been — undoing the mistakes of the Clinton administration. I talked to a lot of former FBI officials, and they just can’t believe the weakness of Clinton in response to the terror threat. After the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, in which Iran was implicated, Clinton made a semi-apology to Iran while the investigation was still underway. After al Qaeda nearly leveled two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, Clinton responded with pinprick cruise-missile strikes, one of which was against a probably mistaken target. After the Cole bombing in 2000, Clinton did nothing.
On Tapped, Yglesias points out that Lowry’s National Review failed to levy these attacks before 9/11. He concludes:
I would argue that before 9-11 Democrats were more focused on terrorism than Republicans (most of whom seemed overly enamored with missile defense and great-power politics) but it’s clear — in retrospect — that it would have been nice if both the Clinton and Bush administrations had done more to combat al-Qaeda. By and large, liberals have resisted the temptation to play the 9-11 blame game, but obviously the folks at National Review have no intention of extending us the same courtesy.
Well, needless to say, this roiled Lowry a fair bit. He responds to Yglesias here. Yglesias then fires back here. Read the entire exchange. Two thoughts on this contretemps:
The question I sought to raise, however, was not whether America’s pre-9-11 counterterrorism policy looks flawed in retrospect — it obviously was — but whether the editors of the National Review were urging that the Clinton administration do anything substantially different at the time. (emphasis in original)
Yglesias may or may not be correct on this point — off the cuff, I suspect he’s correct in nailing the National Review as fundamentally realist in orientation, and the realist recommendation during the 1990’s on dealing with terrorism was essentially to pull U.S. forces out of the Middle East. However, just because the National Review did not criticize the antiterrorism policies of the Clinton era during the Clinton era does not mean no conservative publication failed to do so. It’s worth re-reading Tom Donnelly’s prescient October 30, 2000 cover story in the Weekly Standard. It was written in the aftermath of the USS Cole bombing. The relevant highlights:
The immediate reaction to the bombing of the Cole was telling. President Clinton denounced a “cowardly act of terrorism.” An American president these days has difficulty recognizing an assault on a U.S. Navy vessel in a foreign port for what it obviously is: an act of war. Almost anything short of a conventional armored invasion across an international border is now regarded as terrorism, ethnic cleansing, or even genocide–something entirely irrational, as opposed to a calculated political act. And the proper response to today’s unconventional assaults is seen to be legal and moral: Terrorists should be “brought to justice” and ethnic cleansers made to stand trial in the Hague; our military forces should be employed in a disinterested, evenhanded way on “humanitarian” missions…. Not only are these anti-American warriors brave, they are increasingly well organized, well armed, and well trained. “Globalism,” it turns out, favors not only international businessmen, but also international drug lords and guerrillas. These may be “non-state actors,” but they benefit from state sponsorship, and they can form alliances of convenience with governments hostile to the United States or simply take advantage of weak or failing states. New information technologies, along with old-fashioned weapons proliferation, make the resort to violence both tempting and effective. Curiously, those most resistant to these lessons include the leaders of the U.S. armed forces, both in uniform and out. To them, constabulary duties are far less glamorous and honorable than the conventional wars they signed up for, and far more ambiguous. These missions do not take place on a well-defined battlefield and drive to a clear end. As a result, despite their frequency, the Pentagon has done almost nothing to adapt its operations, its forces, or its budgets to the new reality. As long as the unipolar moment lasts, then, unconventional attacks like that on the Cole or on the Khobar Towers or the ambush of the Rangers in Mogadishu will continue to punctuate the headlines. The American response to these acts of war should be to use the instruments of war–intelligence gathering and military force–not only to avenge them and deter similar acts, but also to frustrate the political aims of our enemies.
Note, by the way, that the uniformed services come in for as much criticism as Clinton’s foreign policy. Criticism that remains relevant today.
UPDATE: I was chary in my praise of the Weekly Standard on this score. The same issue that had Donnelly’s cover story also included Reuel Marc Gerecht’s spot-on criticism of Clinton’s antiterrorism policy. Go check it out. Meanwhile, David Adesnik is going after Yglesias on another matter. ANOTHER UPDATE: For those interested in reading a defense of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy, click here.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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