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Jewish World Review March 19, 2003 / 15 Adar II, 5763

Michael Long

Mike Long
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Consumer Reports

Another thing for Bill Clinton to Zip Up

This time, it's his mouth | The ex-Presidents club tends to be a rather respectful bunch. In general, those who have held the office uniquely appreciate the burden of their successors, and so refrain from direct criticism of a current president, or at least couch their criticism in charitable language.

Unfortunately, not all former leaders of the free world are able to put their country before themselves. Bill Clinton, not the most civic-minded citizen in circulation anyway, has put off for yet another day the task of maturing into the role of ex-President.

Mr. Clinton spoke last week at the 92nd Street Y in New York where, the New York Daily News reports, he disparaged President Bush on both the economy and the handling of Iraq. That's his right, though it's not a particularly responsible act with the President necessarily busy trying to focus the attention of the nation and the world.

According to reporter Joel Siegel, Mr. Clinton now believes Saddam Hussein hid weapons, intimidated his own scientists, and lied to inspectors because of… the U.S. Said the former President, "[We] sent 150,000 troops to the gulf, which convinced everybody we weren't serious about UN inspections. That's how we got into this political mess."

Nevermind that even Hans Blix said that any success the inspections had were precisely because of military pressure. Mr. Clinton has let his partisan delight over the pressure on President Bush trump not only the truth, but also his responsibility to the gravity of the moment.

Mr. Clinton is not some jaw-wagger at a Hot Springs coffee shop, trading attaboys with casino tourists. He is a former President who is taken seriously by a lot of people both here and elsewhere. When an ex-President denigrates the current President or his policies, he undercuts the authority of the U.S.

Bill Clinton is entitled to his opinion. In fact, he may (and on many issues, will) be an effective voice for liberal constituencies in public debate. Moreover, whether one likes him or loathes him, eight years in office imparts some institutional experience whose value transcends politics.

Yet here he is, wading into an explosive international situation with no access to intelligence, no knowledge of any foreign government's up-to-the-minute positions, and apparently no interest beyond criticism. By his lights, Iraq is just a "political mess," and he impossibly imagines that impending war is a dandy opportunity to demonize his opponents and get in the papers.

"We need to be creating a world that we would like to live in when we're not the biggest power on the block," he said, implying that America is in Iraq for no other reason than to swing a big stick. A man who himself ordered bombings on Iraq (without seeking approval from the UN, by the way) knows better.

Most former Presidents have spent their post-office years in a far more dignified role than the one to which Mr. Clinton cleaves. After his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower made himself available to advise Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, both of his opposite party, and they took availed themselves of his experience. In the four years he lived after his presidency, Lyndon Johnson oversaw the construction of his presidential library and wrote his memoirs. Truman famously clipped the hedges and generally confined his comments to matters of domestic concern. Hoover opposed our entry into the Second World War (until Pearl Harbor), the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the Korean War. Yet he knew how essential it is that the country have a unified voice, and tempered his remarks to reflect that. His dissent was expressed with such loyalty that his bitter enemy, President Franklin Roosevelt, appointed him to a key position in handling the occupation of Germany and Austria.

Ex-Presidents can do a lot of good, but they can also do a lot of damage. Mr. Clinton is relatively young, and will spend many more years on the world stage. He will always be official representative for this country in at least some way. Therefore, he must comport himself in a manner that indicates respect for the government, and unity of purpose among the people. Simply stated, he must act like some things are more important than getting attention.

When such a man makes a fundamental criticism of our international position, he undermines our strength, never more so than when we are poised for war.

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JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Michael Long