Bill Clinton in 2001: “I Could Have Killed Bin Laden.”
9/11 may seem like it was a lifetime ago, but there’s no question that we’re still feeling the effects of that fateful day in our day-to-day lives. Ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan echo back to the day four American jets were hijacked by 19 terrorists. The rise of ISIS in Iraq comes in the vacuum of power that we left when we withdrew our troops after a long, quasi-successful war. The TSA, Homeland Security, and even the current conflict in Israel all have at least part of their roots in U.S. policy that followed the bloodiest day of the new millennium.
So it isn’t completely anachronistic to pause and think about Bill Clinton’s discussion about international terrorism in the hours before the attacks. In a recording that has surfaced thanks to Sky News in Australia, Clinton admitted that he had the opportunity to take out Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind al-Qaeda.
“I’m just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden — he’s a very smart guy, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about him — and I nearly got him once,” Clinton told business leaders in Melbourne, Australia on September 10, 2001. “I nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children, and then I would have been no better than him. And so I just didn’t do it.”
Of course, the bin Laden that Clinton is talking about in those ominous hours before the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history was “only” responsible for the 1998 attacks on our embassies in Africa and the bombing of the USS Cole. It would still be another ten hours before he would become public enemy #1 for his role in heading up the deadly 9/11 event.
Of course, what is easy to forget is how distracted Clinton was in the latter half of his presidency. Rather than keeping his eye on the ball, he was playing hide-the-cigar with a certain White House intern. Any attack on Afghanistan at that time would have been exploited as an attempt to draw attention away from his personal crises. Still, there’s no excuse.
The commander-in-chief of the United States military swears an oath to protect the U.S. and its foreign interests. Though bin Laden was far from a household name in the years before 9/11, he was the most wanted man in the world according to the FBI. His role in leading the al-Qaeda organization made him personally responsible for at least 250 deaths. While this number pales in comparison to the many, many thousands of deaths that followed on the day of September 11 and the wars that came after, they were still sufficient to require the president to act. That he didn’t remains one of the most under-mentioned legacies of his administration, and it undermines any liberal’s attempt to position him as a great leader.