by Rod D. Martin
August 21, 1998

This week, Bill Clinton — for the third time in the same year and in the same scandal — engaged the U.S. military in covering his sins.

On Thursday, U.S. Naval forces launched cruise missiles at alleged terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, just three days after Clinton’s quasi-admission to the nation of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, a “mea culpa” that was more “tua” than “mea.” The timing just happened to coincide with Lewinsky’s repeat grand jury performance, in which she is said to have responded to Clinton’s speech with the passion of a woman scorned.

The stated object of the mission, dubbed “Operation Infinite Reach,” was laudable: to show terrorists — and particularly Osama bin Laden — that there is no safe haven, and that there are “no expendable U.S. targets.”

But the real object was as transparent as it was familiar. We have, after all, been here before. In February, a White House reeling from the breaking of the Monica story ratcheted up a months-old war of words with Iraq to fever pitch, and braced the nation for war. A President predicted by some of the nation’s most liberal pundits to be on the verge of resignation suddenly became the leader of the free world against the evils of an allegedly chemical weapon-laden Saddam Hussein, and forces were sent to the Gulf from around the globe. By the time U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan brokered a resolution (distinctly favorable to Iraq), Clinton had successfully dodged his domestic bullet, and had turned the worst of the nation’s vitriol against his pursuer, Judge Kenneth Starr.

A “crisis” over which the President had been willing to send American soldiers to die — in circumstances no different than had existed for months — was resolved against America, and, scandal diverted, Bill Clinton was and is perfectly willing to let the situation stand, precisely as it was when he proclaimed the need for war. And so it has been all these months; except, of course, on the morning of Linda Tripp’s grand jury testimony, when the President saw the need to attack two Iraqi radar stations, neatly dominating the day’s newscasts.

But on Monday, cornered by both testimonial and physical evidence of perjury, subornation of perjury and obstruction of justice, the President addressed the nation.

It did not go well. With nearly everyone on both sides of the aisle encouraging him toward contrition and apology, Clinton was defiant. Admitting very little (and in the vaguest of terms), he unexpectedly attacked the Independent Counsel for half his speech, and repeatedly demanded that everyone recognize his actions as “private.” Congressional Republicans were furious, livid that Clinton had caused the seven-month investigation by his admitted lie and then had the gall to attack the prosecutor. Talk of impeachment, rather than forgiveness, buzzed all over the Hill.

But Democrats were even more upset. The President, after all, had lied to them, and had enlisted their good names in his defense. California Senator Diane Feinstien stated that her trust in the President was utterly “shattered;” other Democrats — even the founder of USA Today, a self-described ten-year defender of Clinton — began to call for his resignation. Journalists gaped to learn that Clinton had worn a tie during his speech that was a gift from Lewinsky, and some even described this as Clinton “giving America the finger.” And Monica herself, reported widely to be deeply “hurt” by the President’s speech, was called back before the grand jury.

It was in the midst of this that Clinton ordered the air strike. It was against this background that he chose to “look presidential.” It was on the brink of his own party’s leaders demanding he resign that he draped himself in the flag.

Is this analysis cynical? Perhaps. But when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went on national television following the strike, his answers told all. The attack was not in retaliation for any particular act, he said; no, there was no immediate threat of new terrorist activity at the time of the strike; no, it was not certain that the bases attacked had had anything to do with the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. And no, General Sheldon continued, the particular timing of the strike was not critical for any purpose, other than the general “duty” of the United States to root out terrorists wherever they may be.

He did not explain why the United States hadn’t bombed a week, or a month, or a year earlier. Nor did he explain why we don’t routinely bomb Iran, Syria and Libya to “root out” terrorists there. And the President contradicted everything he’d said within an hour, even claiming the strike had been called because of a terrorist summit at one of the Afghan camps, something his general had just denied.

But even as network news reporters were asking Secretary of Defense William Cohen whether he’d seen “Wag the Dog” and what similarities it had to the present situation, it was becoming perfectly clear than even in time of crisis no one trusted the President anymore. That alone is enough reason for him to go.

Yet in fact, Clinton must go for a much simpler reason: for the second time in one year, he has shown himself willing to trump up a war simply to divert attention from his domestic scandal. Women and children died this week to put Monica Lewinsky on page two; and the entire world knows it. Bill Clinton sold out his country this week; and he sullied the honor of his entire nation in the process.