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Wagging Saddam

By Robert Novak

Creators Syndicate, 12/21/1998
 

WASHINGTON -- The final reason for going to war helps explain the anger of Pentagon staff officers and congressional Republicans who say President Clinton "wagged the dog" in vainly trying to evade impeachment by attacking Iraq.

On Dec. 9, United Nations weapons inspectors from UNSCOM, acting on a tip, showed up without notification at the Baghdad headquarters of the ruling Baath Party to search for ballistic missile components. The Iraqi escorts, citing a 1996 agreement, said only four inspectors could enter. Richard Butler, the imperious Australian who heads UNSCOM, ruled that the agreement was no longer in force and terminated the inspection because he wanted more inspectors to enter.

That is the quality of six complaints cited by Butler in the report Clinton used as cause for war. Iraq barred a Dec. 4 inspection because it was the Muslim Sabbath (though previous inspections had gone forward on Fridays). Two weeks earlier, an UNSCOM helicopter was buzzed by an Iraqi helicopter.

These incidents reflect Saddam Hussein's obnoxious style but do not compare to more than 400 unimpeded inspections reported by Iraq since cooperation resumed Nov. 14. And they do not prove the existence of "weapons of mass destruction" claimed by the president but still not discovered by UNSCOM.

Butler indignantly denied last week that he carries water for the Americans, but the U.S. government was alerted in advance to what last week's UNSCOM report would contain. As Clinton took Palestinian applause in Gaza last Monday, secret plans were underway for an air strike coinciding with the House impeachment vote. The president had time to consult with Congress and the U.N. Security Council but took no step that might stay his hand.

As whenever a president pulls the trigger, Clinton's top national security advisers supported him. But majors and lieutenant colonels at the Pentagon, whose staff work undergirds any military intervention, are, in the words of a senior officer, "200 percent opposed. They disagree fundamentally." They know the attack on Iraq was planned long before Butler's report and consider it politically motivated.

Republican congressional support normally is automatic when guns begin to fire. So, comments by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, when he learned that hostilities were hours away, were extraordinary. Lott is an anti-Saddam hard-liner and lifelong military hawk. But when he talked to me from Gulfport, Miss., Wednesday morning, he felt constrained to say he could not support this operation on the eve of the impeachment debate. "Maybe it's just coincidence," said Lott, "but it's very hard to sell that, I think."

For Lott and other Republicans, the "coincidence" of military buildups and sometimes action with Clinton crises has become all too common. The majority leader reflexively saluted when Clinton ordered dubious bombings of Afghanistan and Sudan just after his admission that he misled the country about Monica Lewinsky. Now, Lott feels he was deceived four months ago.

The White House argument that impeachment and Iraq were disconnected was undermined by Democrats when they pleaded not to debate impeachment while American fighting men and women were supposedly in harm's way in the push-button war. Indeed, that was the heart of the arguments in the House Friday from Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Minority Whip David Bonior.

Apart from complaints about wagging the dog, however, Republicans found no fault with presidential war-making against Saddam. During Thursday's debate on a resolution pledging support for U.S. troops, only two members flatly questioned going to war without war aims: Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a former Libertarian candidate for president who votes mostly conservative, and Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, a militant liberal.

"We have granted too much authority to our president to wage war," Paul told the House. DeFazio's remarks placed Bill Clinton in a succession of presidents who "have run roughshod over weak-kneed congressional leaders."

DeFazio also raised a point hardly mentioned. After attending the closed-door briefing of Congress Thursday night, he concluded: "I am not aware of any immediate threat that justifies this nearly unilateral action by U.S. forces."

Soft-spoken Gen. Brent Scowcroft, adviser to Republican presidents but no partisan battler, calls "appalling" the timing of the attack just before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The real question, apart from impeachment and Ramadan, is raised by DeFazio: Should the attack have been launched at all?
 

Originally Published on December 21, 1998


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