Clinton's Critique of His Successor Takes On a Harder Edge

Ronald Brownstein

Los Angeles Times

July 26, 2004

Even after completing 957 pages of memoir, Bill Clinton still has a lot to get off his chest.

About, for instance, George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq. "The American people can decide who they think is right and wrong, but the Bush administration believed Iraq was far and away the biggest security problem of the country, despite the fact that there was more support for Al Qaeda within Pakistan and now we know more contacts with Iran," the former president said in an interview as he prepared for his prime-time address to the Democratic National Convention tonight.

"There were," he added dryly, "other responsible people who had different views."

He's just as exercised about Bush's doctrine of military preemption. "I think it's a very tricky, slippery slope," he said. "I think you have to be under an imminent threat to justify any kind of preemptive attack. First of all, it was never realistic because we are not going to go to war with Iran or North Korea. I think it's hard to even t hink of another case."

Since leaving office in 2001, Clinton has seemed torn between the tradition of avoiding public conflict with his successor and his unhappiness with many of Bush's choices. At points he's jabbed Bush, especially on his domestic priorities. But mostly Clinton has avoided confrontations.

As Bush drove toward war in Iraq, Clinton was more supportive than not (although just before the invasion he urged Bush to give inspections more time, reasoning that it would encourage more nations to join if war still proved necessary).

In his memoir, Clinton also was restrained in expressing his disagreements with Bush.

But the restraints, apparently, are loosening.

Clinton still isn't prepared to become another Al Gore, channeling the Democratic id in podium-pounding speeches that seem designed to end with the distribution of pitchforks.

But four years after Gore mostly kept him on the shelf in the 2000 campaign, Clinton also has made it clear that he's r eady to help Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, define the choice for voters this year. And it's equally clear he sees that choice in stark terms.

"On balance," Clinton said, "Bush domestic policy is to cut taxes no matter what it does to the deficit and to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of people who share his values and economic interests. Abroad, his policy is to act alone whenever we can and cooperate whenever we have to.

"Kerry's policy at home," Clinton continued, "is to say that we ought to have a government that has more fiscal responsibility and takes more initiative in education and healthcare, changes the energy and environment policy of the country to generate jobs and improve the environment and combat global warming. Abroad, he thinks we should cooperate whenever we can and act alone whenever we need to."

Republicans would dispute almost every word in that formulation — especially whether Kerry, given his long list of new spending initiatives, is truly committed to fiscal responsibility. But it is a much more concise summary of the Democratic case than Kerry manages on most days.

Clinton seems especially exasperated by Bush's foreign policy decisions. He doesn't quarrel too much with the judgment of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that his administration, like Bush's, did not do enough to counter the threat from Al Qaeda. "We got a lot more done than had ever been done before," Clinton said. "[But] the 9/11 commission may be right that notwithstanding our best efforts, the whole government was not as sharply focused before 9/11 as it was after."

But he believes Bush has taken significantly wrong turns in the war on terrorism, partly by downplaying the U.S. role in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace, mostly by shifting resources and energy from Al Qaeda to the invasion of Iraq, especially given the global divisions over the war.

"We have an overstressed military, and we have committed far more resources to Iraq than to Al Qaeda," Clinton said pointedly. "I don't think every American president would have made that decision."

Would Clinton have invaded? As president, he portrayed former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as a threat in vivid language conservatives often quote today. And apart from asking whether Bush was moving too fast, he didn't publicly challenge his successor's decision at the time. Now, without answering definitively, Clinton strongly implies he would not have launched the war.

"I would have let [U.N. inspectors] finish their work, and then I would have decided," he said. "But the factors in my thinking would have been how well we were doing in Afghanistan stabilizing the entire country, and what our reasonable prospects of getting [Al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden were. I still think he was the biggest threat to the country."

In their fundamental approaches to the presidency, Clinton and B ush are opposites. Clinton believed he exerted his greatest leverage by trying to bridge differences, at home and abroad. Bush appears to believe he can best advance his goals by clarifying differences and polarizing choices.

Not surprisingly, Clinton believes that strategy explains why Bush finds himself in such a difficult race less than three years after enjoying near-unified public support following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The president may still be reelected, because he's a great politician, but if he's not, it will be because of the response that he decided to undertake after 9/11," Clinton said. "We all wanted to follow the leader and be united as a country. The Republican right … which dominates the policy of this White House, took our patriotism to be weakness and tried to push the country to the right and push the world around, and there was a predictable reaction."

How does Clinton, who lovingly analyzes electoral trends in his memoir, handicap November? "A slight major ity seem to have decided they would like a new president," he said. "Kerry just has to close the deal."

That may be. But Democrats would probably feel better about that prediction if Kerry had just a little more of Clinton's spark on the campaign trail.

Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See past columns at latimes.com/brownstein.