Sparing Bin Laden: Ethics Lessons From Bill Clinton’s 2011 Admission

In an alternate universe, this missile strike prevented 9-11. It doesn't matter.

In an alternate universe, this missile strike prevented 9-11. It doesn’t matter.

Sky News host Paul Murray revealed a previously unreleased audio recording of Bill Clinton speaking to a group of Australian businessman in Melbourne (undoubtedly for an obscene fee, since the Clintons were poor as church mice back then, but I digress) on September 10, 2001.  Clinton’s fascinating answer to an audience question about terrorism has raised a lot of eyebrows:

“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. I nearly got him. And I could have gotten, 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.”

Observations from an ethics perspective:

  • Over at the conservative website Hot Air, Allahpundit writes..

There’s a reason why the term “September 10th mentality” exists, and Bill Clinton’s not the only one who was guilty of it. To be fair to the guy, I’m willing to believe he’d like a do-over on this today. Or am I being too fair?

No, actually he is being too unfair. The decision Clinton made was the correct and ethical one then, and what occured subsequently can’t alter that verdict. I would assume and hope that Clinton would make the same decision today, under the same circumstances. (It is ridiculous to ask whether he would have acted differently had he known that Bin Laden had already triggered an attack on U.S. civilians on U.S. soil.)

  • Was Clinton right that he would have been “no better than” Osama had he decided to risk the lives of 300 civilians to kill the master terrorist? No, of course not. Terrorists target civilians, and killing them is the objective. The judgment that a military target is important enough to national security to risk civilian life is a legitimate one, if made with full consideration of all options and possible consequences.
  • Would President Obama have droned Bin Laden, or tried? Presumably so, but also presumably not at the risk of killing mass numbers of civilians. It is true that the emergence of world terrorism on the scale of 9-11 changes the calculus, ethically and practically, and thus it is unfair to judge Clinton’s call made pre-September 11 by post-Twin Tower realities. Would killing Bin Laden after 9-11 at the risk of significant civilian casualties have been ethically defensible? Yes.
  • It is interesting (suspicious?) that this information is coming out now. What would have been the reaction if Clinton’s speech was disclosed immediately after the towers went down? I would assume, since finger-pointing was rampant back then, Republicans and beleaguered Bush officials would have used it to deflect criticism of their policies.
  • Was the Australian journalist protecting Clinton by withholding the video? Did any American journalists know about the speech? The possibility that the public and partisan politicians may react unfairly and irrationally to information is not justification for withholding it.
  • Another possibility is that the speech is being released now as part of the foreign media’s public relations attack on Israel over its Gaza campaign. That’s my guess. The intended message: “See? The U.S. didn’t support killing civilians to strike back at terrorists in 2011; why are they making excuses for the Israelis killing innocent Gazans now?” It is a dishonest analogy.  When Clinton passed on killing Bib Laden, the terrorist was not launching  ongoing attacks on Americans (as far as we knew). Nor was Bin Laden the approved and elected government of the civilians who would have been placed in peril.
  • Did Clinton reveal this fateful decision of his to the U.S. media and the public, like in the pages of his autobiography, after 9-11? If so, it flew under the radar. I can certainly understand why he wouldn’t want to reveal it; I would respect him more if he had. It would have been the honest, fair and courageous thing to do.
  • Any effort to blame Clinton now for not killing Bin Laden that goes along the lines of “He saved 300 Afghani lives but sacrificed 3000 Americans!”—and you know it’s coming: I think I’ll avoid talk radio for a few days—will be ethically indefensible. It is pure consequentialism…judging a decision’s ethical nature based on results that were unknowable at the time the decision was made.


Facts: Huffington Post, Hot Air



12 thoughts on “Sparing Bin Laden: Ethics Lessons From Bill Clinton’s 2011 Admission

    • So you say. Wrong.

      The most important and best recent post in my opinion, which is what matters most, is this one, laying out how the passing of an incompetent law corrupts the entire process up and down. The Clinton post is easy—most people get it. That post expresses a core point of ethics that most misunderstand The follow-up post furthers the discussion. This has nothing to do with whether the law’s objectives are desirable or not—it is not a political issue. It is an ethics issue, involving process and integrity of the system, and why ignoring process corrupts literally everything.

      I also think the recent posts about domestic violence are more important, and also make critical ethics observations not being made elsewhere, which is my major criteria for a good post, and the best one.

  1. I might be misremembering history, but I thought President Clinton’s comments that he could have killed bin Laden but refrained from doing so because of the loss of 300 civilians were well known. Clinton’s actions in Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan were detailed in 9/11 Commission’s report, and that Clinton had been tracking bin Laden since at least 1998.

    I totally agree with your post, though. Say what you will about Clinton’s dalliances with interns and his liberal agenda, but I don’t think Clinton would be have allowed attacks on the country. Criticizing him in 2014 for not acting in 1999 or 2000 when he had the chance is like criticizing people for not assassinating Hitler in 1928 or 1938 when there may have been an opportunity to prevent World War II and Nazi genocide. Clinton’s decision in 2000 to spare 300 civilians to take out bin Laden is entirely defensible on ethical and moral grounds.

  2. I would ask (on the side) how it was Clinton thought a military strike to take down one man would necessarily “destroy a little town called Kandahar” and “kill 300 people”. First of all, Kandahar is a large city; the second largest in Afghanistan. Second (and if I recall correctly); we already had people on the ground who were mission capable. Third (and if this was the same incident previously related); the problem arouse because Clinton had mandated that only HE could authorize a hit on a known jihadist leader. When the call came, however, Clinton was “unavailable” (one can only imagine what THAT meant) and there was only his security advisor present. Unfortunately, Sandy “the Burglar” Burger wasn’t up to granting that sort of permission on his own. Thus, good men waited in vain as their opportunity slipped away.

    Maybe this was ANOTHER lost opportunity Clinton is talking about, though. Maybe this was one where the only way to take him out was with another one of Clinton’s infamous “aspirin factory” Tomahawk missile strikes. Alright- that’s another issue. But even if he had, it wouldn’t have “destroyed” Kandahar (then an unpacified hotbed of Taliban power) and likely wouldn’t have endangered as many people as he claimed. Clinton still hadn’t tripped to the concept that a growing Islamist movement was at war with America and all of civilization… and that innocent casualties happen in war. Obviously, he either still hasn’t or just doesn’t care, as he weighs everything by politics. In the latter respect, he has much in common with the current president.

    It’s true that Clinton couldn’t have looked into a crystal ball and foreseen 9-11. However, he should have been able to see that a leader such as Bin Laden- with the manpower, loyalty and resources that he commanded even then- would take his terrorism to the shores of the nation he deemed his worst enemy. Likely, the first attack on the World Trade Center had already occurred by then. Therefore, in the broader picture, the pundits are correct. Bin Laden got away from America several times (including an offer by the Sudanese government to give him up) due to Clinton’s cowardice and/or incompetence. That there would be consequences for America from this was inevitable. That Clinton might not have predicted something as dramatic as the September 11th attacks hardly exonerates him.

  3. I don’t trust Mr. Clinton to tell the truth at any time or any place ever.
    If the circumstances were as he said they were at the time, he was correct in declining to risk taking so many civilian lives. I really dislike that I have to put so many conditions on my opinion, but I have no doubt that there is at least one lie in his statement. Just as there are lies in virtually all political statements, and most non-political ones.

  4. How would attacking Bin Laden then been worse than, say, attacking an army headquarters in Hiroshima about sixty-nine years ago?

  5. Jack,
    I never said it was your most “important” post or the most moral, only that I enjoyed reading it more than some of your other posts. I stated an opinion; I didn’t attempt to pass judgement. This article dealt with a very emotional issue with fairness and poise. This is all I meant to say.

    “Wrong?” Ouch. That’s a very definitive rejection of what was, by it’s very nature, a entirely subjective statement.

    Would you prefer I no longer post in your comments section? We seem to be constantly at odds (especially in years past) and, though I’ll admit to being antagonistic, I’m never mean, nor do I engage in person attacks. I’m not suggesting you are, only that you seem to interpret my intentions quite differently. That said, this is (and has always been) your forum and I have no intention of being a dog in the manger about it.


    PS: In my last comment I misused the term “euphemism.” I sometimes (mistakenly) use it as a synonym of “idiom” or “expression.” It’s an error I internalized in my youth and still occasionally manifests itself. I only meant that the phrase “brain shrapnel” was an overly cute way of describing such a gruesome image.

    • I am grateful for all comments that are articulate and substantive, Neil, and yours almost invariably are. But I made it clear what I objected to about your previous post, which I believe was an unwarranted general criticism of the posts here. Then you weighed in with a superlative. The Saroyan Principle applies..if I don’t trust your analysis in criticism, I’m not going to credit your compliments, either. And while I know it is is not intended, by you or anyone else, when I work hard at substantive posts on important issues that are not being discussed anywhere else on thee web from an ethical perspective, the reason the blog exists, it is annoying to see “Boy, that piece on the packaging of cotton balls was your best post yet!” It wasn’t you—it was the timing of your comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.