One day in 1998, I was invited to have an off-the-record chat with an important staff person on the Clinton administration's National Security Council. We met, at the important person's suggestion, at the important person's important club, where the major domo was kind enough to lend me a tie. We sat in important old chairs and drank important old whiskey and had a made-for-TV version of an important old Washington conversation -- the personage from the White House setting me right, one important man to another, on the real and complex forces at work behind our government's seemingly mindless, but actually deep and subtle and clever, actions. And me trying to nod in a way that suggested a fine blend of Kissingerian cunning and Lippmannesque wisdom, which is hard to do in a borrowed tie.
The whole experience was terrific fun, although I never could shake the feeling that it was all a mistake -- that I was supposed to be someone else entirely, someone who actually mattered, Tom Friedman or Bob Woodward probably. Right up to the end, I half expected the important person to suddenly say, with a mildly puzzled smile, "You know, you're a damned sight better looking on television, Bob."
At any rate, the encounter ended in a perfect straight-to-video moment, the two of us men of import standing on the corner, in a drizzle, backlit by a street lamp, having that cinematically crucial last word. It seemed to be my line, so I said something about how things didn't seem to be working too well with the Iraq policy. I can't remember at which point of collapse the Clinton approach was precisely at that week, whether Saddam Hussein had actually gotten around to throwing out the U.N. weapons inspectors or was still enjoying the long defiance and humiliation of an impotent America too much to bid that last goodbye -- but it doesn't really matter.
The important person leaned forward, his eyes unusually ablaze with deep and subtle and clever thoughts, and he said, in a demi-whisper: No, you don't understand. As long as Hussein behaves like this, the U.N. sanctions will stay in effect, and as long as the sanctions stay in effect, Hussein will stay weak. If he obeys the U.N. mandates, then the sanctions will disappear, and he will become strong again. We've got him just where we want him.
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful that this person, and all the other deep and subtle and clever people of the Clinton White House, and all the thoughts they thought, and all the damage they wrought, are history.
I am thankful that we live in reality again. Or, to be more precise, I am thankful that we live in a reality defined by the actual consequences of policies, rather than what columnists and correspondents and editors can be gulled into thinking are consequences -- gulled at least for long enough to skate through that day's news cycle and this season's electoral cycle.
Liberals, in the Democratic Party and in their media and academic institutional bases, persist in seeing the accruing foreign policy triumphs of the Bush administration as accidents of history occurring within an aberration of history. This could not be more wrong. The accidents, and the larger aberration, belonged to the years this administration has led us out of, the long years of suspension of disbelief that constituted Clinton foreign policy in practice.
This was a policy accidental at its core -- essentially, ad hoc reaction to, and street-corner justification of, actions that simply happened as they happened, under the management (well, more like stage-management) of a president whose only enduring belief was that nothing was true but poll ratings.
But some things are true. It is true that Iraq, during the Clinton years, waged a war of attrition against the United States, massively violated the cease-fire it agreed to in 1991 and a long series of U.N. resolutions, almost daily firing on warplanes assigned to patrol the peace, even going so far as to attempt the assassination of an American president. And it is true that Clinton pretty much let Iraq get away with all of this, and ultimately walked away. And it is true that men like Osama bin Laden saw in Clinton's great aberrational abdication of American responsibility a wonderful shining hope: With just a bit more of a push, just one really big murder, America the paper tiger could be induced to walk away from all of the Middle East.
But, as it turned out, this last bit wasn't true at all. There are some things that no amount of wishing, and no amount of deep and subtle and clever dreaming, can make true. For which I am thankful.