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Clinton’s Legacy, Part 2: The Attacks on 9/11


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Last month I sought to correct the record by showing that the administration of Bill Clinton (1993–2001), which is almost universally viewed with nostalgia, played a major role in inflating the housing bubble, which led to the Great Recession, thanks to aggressive polices pushed by his second secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Andrew Cuomo.

That should be enough to cause people to rethink the Clinton years, but another catastrophe also may be laid in part at Clinton’s door: the attacks on 9/11, which provided the pretext for more than a decade of war (the so-called war on terror), a more explicit American empire, and an array of policies that violate civil liberties.

How can Clinton, who left office January 20, 2001, share responsibility for the al-Qaeda attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001?

The answer is that throughout his two terms, Clinton (1) continued devastating economic sanctions on Iraq, which were begun by his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, and the United Nations after the army of Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait in 1990; (2) kept U.S. troops near Muslim holy places in Saudi Arabia (the troops had been stationed there to facilitate the Gulf War of 1991, which ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait); and (3) allied the U.S. government more closely with Israel, reinforcing the U.S. role as facilitator of the occupation of Palestinian land and oppressor of the non-Jewish population. As it happens, those were the three explicit grounds for al-Qaeda’s determination to inflict harm on the United States.

In 1996 Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda, issued a fatwa against the United States titled “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.” Bin Laden called the occupation “the latest and the greatest of … aggressions [by the West], incurred by the Muslims since the death of the Prophet.” Bin Laden, who hated Saddam and his secular regime, implied that a short-term presence of U.S. troops would have been tolerable in order to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait five years earlier. However, he said, “It is out of date and no longer acceptable to claim that the presence of the crusaders is [a] necessity and only a temporary measures [sic] to protect the land of the two Holy Places.” He specifically condemned “the rejection of the idea of replacing the crusaders’ forces by an Islamic force composed of the sons of the country and other Muslim people.”

Bin Laden went on to designate the crushing economic sanctions on Iraq as grounds for his fatwa: “More than 600,000 Iraqi children have died due to lack of food and medicine and as a result of the unjustifiable aggression (sanction) imposed on Iraq and its nation. The children of Iraq are our children. You, the USA, together with the Saudi regime are responsible for the shedding of the blood of these innocent children.”

Finally, bin laden noted that “Americans … are assisting their Zionist brothers in occupying Palestine and in evicting and killing the Muslims there, by providing arms, men, and financial supports.”

He issued a second declaration in 1998 and returned to these themes. “The Arabian Peninsula has never — since God made it flat, created its desert, and encircled it with seas — been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations. All this is happening at a time in which nations are attacking Muslims like people fighting over a plate of food,” he said.

“No one argues today about three facts that are known to everyone; we will list them, in order to remind everyone:

“First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.

“If some people have in the past argued about the fact of the occupation, all the people of the Peninsula have now acknowledged it. The best proof of this is the Americans’ continuing aggression against the Iraqi people using the Peninsula as a staging post, even though all its rulers are against their territories being used to that end, but they are helpless.

“Second, despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded
1 million … despite all this, the Americans are once again trying to repeat the horrific massacres, as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation….

“Third, if the Americans’ aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the aim is also to serve [Israel] and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there.”

During the Clinton years, al-Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center in 1993; apparently blew up Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. Air Force personnel; attacked two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 after the second fatwa was issued; and attacked the USS Cole in 2000.

The upshot is that al-Qaeda’s grounds for the 9/11 attacks all involved policies carried on by Bill Clinton’s presidency. None of those U.S. policies justified al-Qaeda’s attacks on civilians, but the policies do explain the motivation for men’s willingness to fly suicide missions against the United States. Clinton had a chance to break with George H.W. Bush and defuse tensions with Arabs and Muslims but chose not to. Instead he intensified the offending policies. Let’s take the Iraqi sanctions as an example.

The sanctions

The Bush/Clinton policy toward Iraq was seamless. The Bush administration’s harsh economic sanctions, pursued vigorously by Clinton, aimed at regime change. Besides that, the U.S. government demanded full UN inspections in an effort to ensure that Saddam wasn’t building nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. The U.S. Air Force was also patrolling no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq (with Britain and France but without UN authorization), dropping bombs and inflicting civilian causalities. As John Pilger wrote in 2000,

The Royal Air Force, together with the US, bombs Iraq almost every day. Since December 1998, the Ministry of Defence has admitted dropping 780 tonnes of bombs on a country with which Britain is not at war. During the same period, the United States has conducted 24,000 combat missions over southern Iraq alone, mostly in populated areas. In one five-month period, 41 per cent of casualties were civilians: farmers, fishermen, shepherds, their children and their sheep — the circumstances of their killing were documented by the United Nations Security Sector…. In truth, it is the longest such campaign since the Second World War.

The economic sanctions against Iraq were widely regarded as a gross human-rights violation, with the greatest hardship imposed on children. During the Gulf War, U.S. bombs destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure, including electric-generation, sewage-treatment, and water-treatment plants. After the war and until the start of the Iraq war in 2003, the sanctions kept equipment necessary for the repair of those facilities from being imported. Thus public health deteriorated, leading to many deaths and illnesses.

Of course the most notorious moment with respect to the sanctions policy came during a 60 Minutes interview with Clinton’s UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright, in May 1996. Interviewer Lesley Stahl asked, “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”

To which Albright responded, “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.”

That clip was no doubt replayed many times throughout the Middle East. Bin Laden’s first fatwa came about three months later. As I’ve written previously,

That remark caused no public outcry [in the United States]. In fact, in January the following year Albright was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as President Clinton’s secretary of State. In her opening statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was considering her appointment, she said, “We will insist on maintaining tough UN sanctions against Iraq unless and until that regime complies with relevant Security Council resolutions.”

While in office Albright never apologized for her callous words. She later wrote in her memoir that she regretted what she had said, criticizing Stahl for setting a trap that she carelessly fell into. She also said that any casualties from the embargo were attributable to Saddam, since he could have had it lifted by complying with U.S./UN demands. But that is misleading. For one thing, the Clinton administration did not only demand that Saddam permit weapons inspections; it demanded an end to Saddam’s regime — which could only be expected to make him dig in.

Moreover, the U.S. obstructed the import of needed goods even when Saddam did cooperate. As Joy Gordon reported in the November 2001 Harper’s, “The United States has fought aggressively throughout the last decade to purposefully minimize the humanitarian goods that enter the country.”

No wonder two UN humanitarian coordinators quit over the sanctions. As one of them, Denis Halliday, said when he left in 1998, “I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’ because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view.”

No one can say with certainty that a Clinton reversal of his monstrous Middle East policies would have averted the attacks on 9/11 (or the earlier strikes). What we do know is that al-Qaeda and its operatives repeatedly referred to them whenever they had the opportunity. Clinton must accept his share of responsibility for provoking terrorism against the Unites States.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.