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.