WHEN a politically-besieged President Bill Clinton launched punishing air strikes against Iraq late last Wednesday, only hours after United Nations military inspectors declared that their work in Iraq had been blocked, his action created an extraordinary nexus of military and political uncertainty in Washington. Clinton, who ordered the attack—code-named 'Desert Fox'—in coordination with the UK, pre-empted any intervention by the UN Security Council in an apparently calculated move. The air strikes are the largest the US has undertaken since the 1991 Gulf War.
But the timing—on the eve of a House of Representatives vote on Clinton's impeachment—set off a fierce partisan debate among those who questioned his motives. At the very least, analysts believe, the domestic backdrop is certain to complicate Clinton's efforts to build support at home and among allies for his military campaign.
There's also the danger that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein would find less need to retreat in his confrontation with the US and the UN, given the political turbulence in the US. The strange political backdrop also raises the stakes for Clinton. Given the mistrust of his motives, he'll be under heightened pressure to show that the strikes have significantly changed the strategic situation in Iraq. At the same time, any American casualty could pose an explosive problem because critics would allege that they were the result of a dubious decision.
In a speech to the nation, Clinton said he ordered the attack after a "stark, sobering and profoundly disturbing" report from the chief UN arms inspector that described Iraq's actions to thwart weapons inspections. Possibly anticipating the criticism of his decision and its timing, Clinton twice asserted that his national security advisors, including uniformed military officers, unanimously favoured the attack, and waiting would have allowed Iraqi officials to move their military equipment out of harm's way.
Although an American attack on Iraq has long been threatened, it has come at a time of intense political turmoil in Washington. Republican House leaders immediately postponed the impeachment vote because of the military action while members accused the president of moving on Iraq only to divert attention away from the impending impeachment move.
"I can't support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time. Both the timing and the policy are subject to question," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, called the strike "an insult to the American people," while Tillie Fowler, another Republican, declared: "I think the president is shameless in what he'd do to stay in office." House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas called for Clinton to resign and said that "after months of lies", the president had given "millions of people around the world reason to doubt that he has sent Americans into battle for the right reasons".
The scorn and derisive comments were a surprising break from the tradition of Congressional support for military action overseas and angry Democrats pounced on the GOP. Such hostile remarks were "as close to a betrayal of the interests of the US as I've ever witnessed in the Congress," said an enraged Sen. Robert Torricelli (Democrat). Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also referred to criticisms from Republican lawmakers as "very unseemly and unbecoming".
However, the principal Republican in the Clinton cabinet, defence secretary William S. Cohen, vigorously defended the President's motives in launching the attack. "I am prepared to place 30 years of public service on the line (to say there was no ulterior motive)," he declared.
TV commentators again recalled parallels to the Robert De Niro movie, Wag the Dog, that showed an American president ginning up a pretend war to get sexual impropriety headlines out of the news. Ironically, there were press reports a day earlier that De Niro himself had been lobbying Congress against impeachment.
Sen. John McCain said Republicans could take the attack seriously, delay the impeachment vote, and "that would give credence to 'Wag the Dog' theory". Historian Michael Kazin recalled instances of previous presidents whose motives were questioned: "People accused Roosevelt of setting up Pearl Harbour so he could achieve his goal of getting us into World War II." Harry Truman, he added, was accused of playing up a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia to get Congress to pass the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe as a bastion against the Soviet Union. If there was "wagging", it wasn't for the greater good of the country and freedom, it was for purely personal reasons, angry Clinton foes say. While friends insist there was no Wag the Dog.
Clinton had been accused of playing Wag the Dog and trying to divert public attention from the Lewinsky sex scandal when he launched strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan in August, in the wake of the Tanzania and Kenya bombings. Only last month, the president called off an attack against Iraq at the last minute, with US bombers actually in the air. Then, Clinton explicitly warned Saddam that if he didn't live up to his pledge of full compliance with UN inspections, he'd pay the price.
The aim of the latest strikes, says a senior White House official, is to "degrade what we know of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, hit a lot of things that are near and dear to his regime, and maybe set the conditions for upheaval." Another analyst predicted that the US may—in conjunction with the air strikes—launch a covert operation, using Iraqi exiles, aimed at killing Saddam.
Administration officials disclose that they have another problem on their hands—the potential for Islamic terrorists launching attacks of their own to punish the US for hitting Iraq. American facilities, both overseas and domestic, have been on the alert in recent weeks because of unrelated terrorism threats.
At UN headquarters in New York, where the Security Council met to discuss the crisis, secretary-general Kofi Annan expressed regret that the confrontation over inspections escalated into violence. "However daunting the task, the UN had to try (to forestall an attack), as long as any scope for peace remained," he said in a statement shortly after the raids. "I deeply regret that today these efforts have proved insufficient."
Representatives of many of the 15 members of the Security Council expressed regret over the decision to bomb Iraq without first seeking Security Council approval, but they also bluntly said Iraq was responsible because of its refusal to cooperate. Russia and China, however, bitterly criticised the US and British actions. Communist legislators in Moscow trashed the ratification of a crucial nuclear disarmament treaty; Russian president Boris Yeltsin accused Washington and London of "violating the UN charter and endangering world security".
Beijing too demanded immediate halt to the airstrikes, calling them "unilateral", as the Security Council hadn't given permission. "We're shocked," said a foreign ministry spokesman. "By using force against Iraq, the US has violated the UN charter and international principles."
Behind the scenes, Clinton administration officials argued that they meant no disrespect to the Security Council. There were several reasons to bypass the Council and act quickly, they said. The Pentagon had put together a sustained air campaign; Clinton and his advisors wanted to ensure it could be launched before Ramzan, expected to begin during the weekend. Any US effort to win support in the Arab and Islamic worlds would be complicated by military action during Ramzan. This means that Washington might feel compelled to halt any military action sooner rather than later, thus clearing the way for a resumption of the impeachment process.
Clinton's domestic political perils also mean that his ability to rally and sustain support for an extended attack is severely limited. "The coalition (supporting him and his policies) is pretty fragile. Once you take some serious civilian casualties, all of a sudden people start bailing out," says Eliot Cohen, a strategic studies expert at John Hopkins University.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives remains firmly on a track that still leads toward a vote favouring impeachment and a Senate trial. The impeachment debate was rescheduled for Friday; the vote likely on Saturday. In some ways, say analysts, Republican anger over the attack on Iraq may only have solidified opposition to Clinton and ensured the votes of GOP moderates still sitting on the fence. US lawmakers find themselves pondering the two most serious questions they can face—war and impeachment—at the same time.