Who's wagging which dog?

In the capital, political reaction to the airstrikes was skepticism

Published August 21, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

WASHINGTON -- It took only a few minutes for one of the reporters in the Pentagon pressroom to ask Secretary of Defense William Cohen the question on many minds: "Have you seen the movie?" He was referring to "Wag the Dog" and the unsettling coincidence between Thursday's military strikes and a movie in which political fixers concoct a war to distract public attention from a presidential sex scandal.

Cohen adopted a steely expression as he replied, "The only motivation driving this action today was our absolute obligation to protect the American people."

But cynicism could not be avoided. I was eating lunch with a prominent Republican official when his office called to inform him of the Clinton-ordered attacks on terrorist installations in Afghanistan and a supposed chemical-weapons factory in Sudan. The official immediately asked the caller, "Is CNN airing video footage of a young girl running with a kitten?" -- a direct reference to a scene in the film. He got up to leave, noting, "Clinton will do anything to get away from Hillary."

It's inevitable. After what seems a week of media elites venting about The Speech -- and it's only been three days! -- nothing Bill Clinton says can be taken at face value in this town. Some of us have long believed he is a fellow not to be trusted, based on his policy decisions on campaign finance reform, global warming, budget politics, Lani Guinier, welfare legislation, mass murder in Rwanda and other matters. But now the core of Washington's ruling class appears to have turned on the man, as well.

It's tough to argue that he doesn't deserve this. But Republicans ought to be careful about going too far in dismissing Clinton. When Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., questioned Clinton's motives in launching the attacks -- "Why did he wait until now?" -- reporters at a press conference (which Coats opportunistically called minutes after the news broke) harshly cross-examined the senator. Didn't he take Bill Cohen, an ex-senator and Republican with whom Coats served, at his word? Coats had to pause before continuing his anti-Clinton spin.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., also rushed before television cameras to suggest that Clinton may have had more than national security on his mind in deciding to bomb. Oddly, two days ago, the president's critics were arguing that his scandalous behavior rendered it difficult for him to act decisively. Then when he did move forcefully, that aggravated his antagonists.

But there were different takes among Republicans. House Speaker Newt Gingrich stated plainly the assault "was the right thing to do." And Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, remarked, "We should all back the president of the United States." Clearly, Republicans were unable to get all their voices in tune with one message. Some simply couldn't resist the urge to whack at the president -- an impulse that could help Clinton should the public become annoyed with GOP eagerness to exploit Monicagate.

Monica Lewinsky aside, there is always reason to worry that military actions are motivated by political needs. Two days after a 1983 terrorist bombing at the U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon killed 241 Americans, President Reagan invaded the tiny island of Grenada in a move that seemed designed to substitute a military romp for a deadly disaster.

President Bush's invasion of Panama in 1989 was questioned as a politically convenient operation aimed to dispose of an embarrassment to the U.S. government: the drugged-up, onetime C.I.A. asset Manuel Noriega. The Panama action also afforded Bush the opportunity to counter criticism that he was a bit of a wimp.

In 1993 Clinton ordered the air strike on Iraqi targets in retaliation for an alleged assassination plot against former President George Bush. At that time, I asked a senior White House aide what justified this act of war. "If we don't do anything, the media will be all over us," he replied. The bombing appeared to work. Afterward, the Christian Science Monitor ran a piece that noted, "By slamming cruise missiles into Baghdad in retaliation for a plot to kill his predecessor, President Clinton has struck a blow that may help overcome his public image of wavering leadership."

"Wag the Dog" has merely given a name to what has always been true: Presidents, when they assume their commander-in-chief duties, do not ignore political considerations. Skepticism is always warranted when a president orders a unilateral military action (particularly since the Consitution delegates the power to declare war to Congress, not the chief executive).

But the best skepticism is that which is guided by principle. Was the evidence strong enough to justify the possible loss of life? Will this action prompt more or less terrorism? How does this strike affect the international rule of law? Might it have been more effective to continue pushing Afghanistan to turn over suspected terrorist kingpin Osama bin Laden?

In this summer of scandal, however, that kind of skepticism takes a back seat in Washington to the widespread desire to score a cheap political hit.

By David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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Afghanistan Bill Clinton Cnn Terrorism