As Cato Institute foreign policy analyst Ted Carpenter told me, "It is pleasantly surprising to see evidence of some stirring of conscience, some desire to have something resembling the truth finally come out, on the part of people both in the State Department and at the New York Times.”
Even if the Times story, in an example of tasteful discretion taken to surreal lengths, managed to avoid even a cursory mention of what most Americans including the Times at the time found most disturbing about the timing of the missile attack on the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan on August 20, 1998.
MISSING THE LEWINSKY CONNECTION
The attack occurred, of course, on the very day Monica Lewinsky, after weeks of public and journalistic buildup, appeared before Kenneth Starr’s grand jury to talk about her sexual encounters with the adulterer-in-chief. The missile attack, followed shortly by TV images of Bill Clinton in hyper-presidential mode, cutting short his vacation and returning to Washington to put his own firm hand on the tiller, made the Monica story an afterthought in the day’s news. As a New York Times story at the time put it, "Ms. Lewinsky’s appearance before the grand jury Thursday, which otherwise would have been prominent news, was relegated to brief reports near the end of the three broadcast-network evening news programs.”
Another Times story August 21 made it clear that just about everybody in the country was speculating as to whether this was a "Wag the Dog” scenario done to distract attention from the president’s personal and political problems and embarrassments. Leading with an anecdote about a copy editor for Avon Products who said everybody at the office was talking about the coincidence of the timing, the story noted that the fact that New Yorkers almost couldn’t help asking cynical questions "seemed to reflect not only the bizarre parallels between fiction and fact, but also the profound distrust that some Americans have begun to harbor toward a president who acknowledged misleading the public.”
Misleading? How about lying repeatedly?
WORSE THAN WAG THE DOG?
How can you write a story about top officials having contemporaneous doubts about the quality of the intelligence that tied the Sudan factory only very loosely and not just in retrospect either to renegade Saudi businessman and terrorism supporter Osama bin Laden or to the manufacture of chemical weapons and not mention Monica Lewinsky? It’s not as if it happened so long ago that nobody will notice that the "newspaper of record” excluded such a key aspect of the attack.
To be sure, it’s not pleasant to have to consider the possibility that a President of the United States would attack a foreign country with which the United States did not have even a standing dispute to protect his own sorry, cheating behind from embarrassment. But it wasn’t Bill Clinton’s critics who made such speculation inevitable. Bill Clinton himself, as the most recent Times story makes clear, pushed hard to have the pharmaceutical factory included in the target list, although there’s strong but not quite conclusive evidence that he knew full well it was doubtful it was really a bin Laden chemical weapons manufacturing site.
Bill Clinton, not his critics, pushed America’s face into this manure pile and rubbed it around until it was covered in ordure.
It’s also worth remembering that while everybody talked about the cynical movie "Wag the Dog,” what Bill Clinton did was worse, by orders of magnitude, than what the fictional playboy president in the movie did. In the movie, remember, the cynical spinmeister suggested and then set up a fictional war with Albania, buttressing the impression of a war with images from stock footage. The country was fooled but nobody was killed.
In real life, President Clinton sent real cruise missiles to destroy a real pharmaceutical factory in a country with which the United States had proper relations and no standing dispute besides the missiles sent to Afghanistan that seem to have done no real harm to bin Laden’s infrastructure.
In so doing (how appropriate that the mission was code-named "Infinite Reach”) he set up a situation (later buttressed by the ignoble Kosovo bombing) that, as Ted Carpenter also reminded me, wherein the president would henceforth attack wherever and whenever it tickled his fancy to attack, with no concern for international law, no decent respect for the opinions of others, no connection to legitimate U.S. national security concerns, and little concern for whether the attack actually accomplished any known military or diplomatic objective. Bill Clinton became the Mad Bomber that day and nobody in the world has felt safe since.
MORE SERIOUS ISSUES
The attack, combined with subsequent events, raised much more serious issues than whether top policy-makers, either egged on by the president or believing that they were doing his wink-and-nod bidding, ignored the well-founded doubts of underlings who knew more than they did. The United States is supposed to be a government of laws under a constitution, and our constitution says it is Congress that has the power to declare war.
A legal scholar might raise serious questions as to whether the president should have the power to order military action in response to an attack or provocation from another country before consulting Congress. But an unprovoked surprise attack on a country with which the United States has continuing diplomatic relations and with which it has not raised concerns is an act of aggression and an act of war.
It’s what you would expect of a personal dictator rather than what should be expected in a constitutional republic or even a democracy.
I don’t take national sovereignty as seriously as some, but there’s little question that it has been the reigning paradigm the myth considered essential to orderly relationships for at least 100 years in international affairs, and especially since the end of World War II. Under the paradigm, nations that want to be viewed as legitimate members of the "community of nations” don’t undertake unprovoked attacks on the territory of other nations. Only "rogue” nations do such things.
That myth of national sovereignty may or may not be essential to world order, but most diplomats and scholars have claimed that it is and no "civilized” nation or international body has publicly repudiated it. So Bill Clinton transformed the United States, the "essential nation” into a rogue state under the terms of international law he and his minions claim to be defending. And they wonder why various countries are scrambling to acquire nuclear weapons, or at least to do enough to convince their potentially troublesome neighbors that they might have them.
Aren’t some of these consequences and much more, of course that flowed from the decision to lob missiles at a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan at least as significant as the fact that top dogs ignored the advice of lower-level bureaucrats who knew better than and have finally allowed their consciences to have some influence on their current actions?
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
All that having been said, however, the Times story, even if late and incomplete, is a welcome development. James Risen, who wrote it, seems to have done a good job of contacting and interviewing as many key players in the decision as possible. He has made it clear that the evidence that the factory was a legitimate target was thin and tenuous, that many serious people in the government understood this and raised serious questions at the time but were quashed by top officials determined to fire away.
The chief villains of the piece should be no surprise to most people. National security adviser Sandy Berger, the besotted critic who sees John McCain and Richard Lugar as knuckle-dragging isolationists, still defends the attack and conveniently "can’t remember” even now any serious question raised at the time.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when she got wind that some career State Department people were planning an after-action report detailing and putting in one document their ongoing doubts, made sure the report wasn’t prepared. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Pickering dutifully played the role of hatchet-man, checking and checking again to make sure nobody was surreptitiously doing their duty to the truth and to the larger interests of the American people.
Phyllis Oakley, who was then Assistant Secretary of State and has since retired after 42 years with the department, emerges as a person who seems to have had something of a conscience. She understood that the evidence linking the plant to terrorism was tenuous and she seems to have tried to stop the attack. She was the one who wanted to do an after-action report. And although she wouldn’t speak with James Risen, word is that she has continued to express her misgivings privately since retiring.
One might question why she didn’t do what in a more innocent time would have been considered the honorable thing, which was to resign and go public at the time of the unjustifiable attacks. But this is an era of leaks and whispers rather than resignations or conspicuous displays of honor or principle. Perhaps she has done the best she can under the circumstances.
We’ll just have to see whether public exposure of the way this attack was mishandled leads to anything resembling reluctance to engage in unprovoked and unjustified attacks on other countries in the future.