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That’s awkward timing, huh?
To be fair to the former president, it’s not exactly like he knew what was going to happen a mere ten hours later while casually dropping what at the time could be called “an interesting tidbit” while chatting with a group of Australian businessmen and politicians after an event in Melbourne, let alone when he made that decision in the late 90’s. Bin Laden had been a priority U.S. target since he orchestrated the 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings in Africa, but up until September 11th, 2001 Bin Laden was merely notorious, and known really only to Americans who kept up with current events — or saw his picture in that scene in the movie “Hannibal” (so not many people, ZING). Bin Laden was not, however, even close to the 21st Century, Hitler-esque, “Ultimate American Enemy” he became on that fateful Tuesday. And, to further defend Clinton’s lack of action, he had a good reason for not taking out Bin Laden when he had the chance.
Clinton’s comments were transcribed from a recording taken that night by Michael Kroger, the former head of the Liberal Party in the Australian state of Victoria.
“And I’m just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden — he’s very smart guy, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about him — and I nearly got him once,” Clinton is heard saying. “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 didn’t do it.”
Such a 90’s answer. You better believe that, liberal or conservative leader, we’d give far less of a shit about that now.
Not only was Clinton not okay with the massive collateral damage that came with that potential Bin Laden strike, but the Join Chiefs advised against it as well.
According to the 9/11 Commission Report, national security officials decided to forgo a missile strike on the region in December of 1998 out of concerns about collateral damage, including 200 to 300 civilian casualties. Some lower-level officials in the government thought that number was exaggerated and were angry when the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised the president against a strike.
Those are the same lower-level officials who have had a bit more leeway in the last decade or so.
Clinton’s decision, and the predicaments that surrounded it, actually seems to have influenced two later major decisions in the War on Terror.
There were allegedly similar opportunities when Bin Laden’s convoy was spotted by U.S. drones, which were unarmed at the time. Fears about collateral damage and the imprecision of cruise missile strikes, which could take hours to hit their target, pushed the U.S. to start arming drones and to step up ground and airstrikes by the Special Forces.
Not only did our missed Bin Laden opportunities cause the U.S. to start arming our drones, but it increased the role of Special Forces. It even stands to reason that Clinton’s missed opportunities with bombings and missile strikes helped influence President Obama to order SEAL Team 6 into Abbottabad instead of utilizing the air strike many members of his staff suggested. A missile strike did make a lot more sense back in 1998 and 1999, though. People weren’t demanding Bin Laden’s body back then. Clinton could have carpet bombed everything within a 20 mile radius of Bin Laden, held a press conference and announced, “Hey, we got that guy who bombed the embassies in Africa. At least we’re pretty sure, we blew up a lot of stuff.” But all the public would have said was, “Shut up about that Indian guy and tell us more about that blow job you sick lying bastard!!!” Priorities.
Hindsight is obviously 20/20 here, but I for one am totally okay with Clinton’s reasoning at the time. Of course we should do our best to knock off every sick, twisted terrorist fuck out there trying to harm America or convince young men to strap bombs to their chests and blow up their neighbors, but the best way to create more terrorists is through unnecessary collateral damage. It’s a fine, shitty line we try our best to walk, and one that the other side isn’t burdened with navigating. It’s not fair, but hey, that’s why we’re the good guys.
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