June 30, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

His Life: As President and Autobiographer, Clinton’s Focus Was Not Terrorism

President Clinton's autobiography, “My Life,” is like Clinton's life – oversized, unabashedly self-serving and rather hard to read.

But I'm not going to review “My Life,” nor even read it cover to cover. At 957 pages, “My Life” is too long, and my life is too short to ponder further the saga of Monica, Paula, Gennifer, et al.  

I have, however, read everything Clinton wrote in this memoir about terrorism, al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and national security. There actually isn't much. His first mention of terrorism is on page 574. Al Qaeda doesn't appear until page 797.

Let me say — for the record – I'm no Clinton hater. I met Clinton once and found him smart and charming. He did some good things in foreign policy. For example, he intervened in Kosovo and Bosnia — not because there were Weapons of Mass Destruction there, but for humanitarian reasons.  I thought that was the right principle then and that it has remained the right principle, although the humanitarian case for intervention was far more compelling in Iraq than in the Balkans.

Clinton may have recognized that. He signed the Iraq Liberation Act in1998 making Saddam the one dictator in the world that Washington aimed to topple. Again, President Clinton was right to make that official U.S. policy, just as President Bush was right to implement that Clinton policy five years later.

Clinton undertook serious efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At Camp David in 2000, he persuaded then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to offer PLO leader Yasser Arafat virtually everything Arafat had said he wanted. Clinton writes that the deal was “so good I couldn't believe anyone would be foolish enough to let it go.” But Arafat did. What Clinton calls “Arafat's refusal to make peace” demonstrated that as long as Arafat wields power, terrorism against Israel will continue — and Israel will have no choice but to defend herself.

Anti-American terrorism didn't begin while Clinton was in the White House but it increased sharply during his presidency with the first World Trade Center attack, the Khobar Towers bombing, the slaughters at our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack on the USS Cole.

Only once, when he lobbed missiles into a tent camp in Afghanistan and a suspected chemical weapons factory in Sudan, did Clinton respond in anything that could be called a forceful manner.

Clinton says he considered doing more – such as taking out a couple of al Qaeda's terrorist training camps in Afghanistan to “show them how serious we were.”  But surely, after repeated terrorist attacks the mission was not to “show seriousness” – a goal worthy of a public relations executive — but to destroy all terrorist training camps that could be located before they graduated more mass murderers – a military/strategic goal worthy of the commander-in-chief.

In those camps, Clinton neglects to note, bin Laden would eventually train 20,000 terrorists. Most of those terrorists are still out there today, planting explosive devices in Iraq or planning to kill your family and mine here at home.

Clinton writes that he wanted to do more, but the Pentagon told him it was too hard to send in Special Forces. The CIA said it “lacked the paramilitary capability” to capture or kill bin Laden. 

I don't think Winston Churchill would have been satisfied with such answers. I think Churchill would have said: “Get the job done or I'll bloody well find someone who will.”

Failing that, Clinton might have ordered an overhaul of the CIA and the military, demanding that these institutions be re-structured to meet the challenges they were not prepared to handle. But that would have meant telling Americans: “I know you want that peace dividend. I'm sorry. We have enemies out there. We have to deal with them.”

Clinton writes that, at one point, he did consider a “large-scale bombing campaign of all suspected campsites or a sizable invasion.” But he decided “neither was feasible without a finding of al Qaeda responsibility for the Cole” bombing.

I simply don't understand that. What about the bombing of our African embassies two years earlier? Did Clinton think the statute of limitations had run out on those acts of mass murder?

He doesn't explain. And that's not all he leaves out. He writes nothing about the radical ideologies sweeping through the Islamic world, nothing about Wahhabism and Ba'athism, nothing about the effectiveness of terrorism as a means to demoralize and ultimately destroy the Free World, nothing about the strategies that can defeat terrorism and the hateful ideas that justify and drive it. In fact, in nearly 1,000 pages, he never really discusses national security at all.

Clinton does say he wishes he had killed bin Laden. But he seems to see bin Laden as just another name on his enemies list – Ken Starr in a turban.

That's the main point I take away from my partial reading of “My Life.” Caught up in his life — his relationships, his ambitions, his appetites, his feuds – Clinton appears never to have understood, or even seriously thought about, the world-historic changes that were taking place during his watch.

In the end, I think history will judge Bill Clinton as a brilliant and beguiling politician who was feckless on the issue that mattered most; a man who got caught up in teapot tempests and failed to see terrible storms gathering on the horizon. “My Life” will provide them with evidence.

Clifford May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute created after 9/11/01 and focusing on terrorism.