Did Bush get it wronger than Clinton?

Jonathan Zasloff responds to Amy Zegart:
Clinton made mistakes, but learned after the bombing of the Cole; Bush didn’t learn until after 9/11.

Jonathan Zasloff of the UCLA Law School has some thoughts in response to Amy Zegart’s analysis (below) of “priorities”:

Amy’s points are, as usual, cogent and well-reasoned. As an analysis of the institutional problems, they could hardly be improved on.

But there’s a question she doesn’t really address: How cogent are the criticisms of the performance of the Bush Administration, and how convincing is its response that its predecessor did no better? That’s part of the judgment the country has to make come November.

1) Yes, both Clinton and Bush made mistakes, and yes, both were focused on too many things. But that obscures the real differences there. After October 2000, Clinton put Clarke in charge of counter-terrorism and directed him to come up with a real strategy to eliminate Al-Qaeda; then in January 2001, Bush substantially diminished the focus on Al-Qaeda, relegated Clarke to a more subordinate role and didn’t give him the access to principals. Put another way: Clinton made mistakes, but learned after the bombing of the Cole; Bush didn’t learn until after 9/11. There’s no comparison here: Clinton was way better on this.

2) All administrations make mistakes. But Bush has shamelessly and deceitfully used 9/11 to his political advantage; he has accused Democrats of lack of patriotism; he has puffed himself up as the war president; he refused to forge a bipartisan consensus on security policy. He will take credit for successes, and even takes credit for failures–it is simply no defense for his advocates now to say, “Oh, well, you know, these things are very difficult.” Bush needs to be relentlessly and unsparingly attacked for every single failure of this administration. Put another way: if the Bushies actually want to unite the country, then they have to go first–and second–and third–and fourth. They have to reverse virtually all of their mendacious policy agenda, both foreign and domestic.

3) And no, it is no answer to say that well, Clinton’s superior policy was only accomplished after seven years in the White House, and you have to allow for inexperience. Bush and Cheney ran largely on the idea that the Democrats could not be trusted on security. They lied and said that the military was unready. To say now that we should define national security down, to cover Bush’s failures with “the soft bigotry of low expectations” because the team was so inexperienced just doesn’t wash.

Over to you, Amy. (Hey, this is much easier than having to write the stuff myself!)

Just one thing to add on my own account: Is the Clinton Administration really the standard to which the Bush Administration aspires in foreign policy? If not, how good an excuse is “Clinton wasn’t any better”?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com