They bomb pharmacies, don't they?

Published September 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

On Aug. 20, President Clinton personally ordered the leveling of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant on the outskirts of Khartoum. More or less simultaneously, another flight of cruise missiles was dropped on various parts of Afghanistan and also -- who's counting? -- Pakistan, in an apparent effort to impress the vile Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden, of course, hopes to bring a "judgmental" monotheism of his own to bear on these United States, and is thus in some peoples' minds a sort of Arab version of Ken Starr.

Sources in U.S. Intelligence apparently claimed that there was only one "window" through which to strike at bin Laden, and that the only time they could hope to hit his Afghan fastness by this remote means was on the night of Monica Lewinsky's return to the grand jury. Let's assume they were correct. After all, they helped build and equip his camps and they may know something we don't (even if they ended up missing him). Furthermore, the hideous Taliban regime is not available for the receiving of diplomatic notes, has even executed some Iranian envoys and seems in other ways to be deaf to shame.

But Khartoum? There are two separate but related questions here. First, was the Al-Shifa factory a Tom Clancy cauldron of devil's brew? Second, did it have to be hit that very night? The first question does involve the second, but for convenience let's summarize its headings. The administration said that no medical or commercial products were made at Al-Shifa. It added that the factory was directly related to bin Laden's occult commercial empire. It further said that the traces of the chemical compound EMPTA had been found in the soil outside the plant. Within days, there was an amazingly swift climb-down from all these claims:

  • Vials of medicine and other evidence of civilian pharmaceutical manufacture were visible in photographs of the first day's debris. The German ambassador to Sudan, Werner Daum, sent a sarcastic cable to Bonn saying that he knew this all along. The British engineer who built the plant, Tom Carnaffin, attested that the plant had no space for the off-the-record experimental work. Other engineers and architects pointed out that the factory had no air-sealed doors, essential if poison gas is to be on the menu. The Sudanese government called loudly for an international inspection, which the Clinton administration -- once so confident -- declined to endorse. By the first week in September, Defense Secretary William Cohen admitted that he "should have known" that Al-Shifa made medical and agricultural products.

  • Secretary Cohen also admitted in the same statement that there was no longer any "direct" financial connection to be asserted between bin Laden and the plant. But he was still pretty sure that there were indirect ones. That could be. There are also many straightforward connections between the turbanned one and Saudi Arabia. But does anyone believe that the United States would rocket a Saudi Arabian target and let the monarchs find out about it from CNN, or when the missiles fell?

  • The presence of EMPTA (O-ethyl methyl phosphonothoic acid) proves nothing on its own, whether found in the soil near a factory or inside the factory itself. I spoke to Professor R.J.P. Williams, who is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Oxford and considered something of an authority on biological systems and on EMPTA. It can be an intermediate in the production of VX gas, he told me, but it can be an intermediate for dealing with agricultural pests and for myriad other purposes. "We must be told where the compound was found, and in what quantity it is known to have been produced, and whether there is any ascertainable link to nerve-gas production. 'Trace' elements in adjacent soil are of no use. Either the administration has something to hide, or for some reason is withholding the evidence."

So much for the legitimacy of the "legally accurate" target. But suppose that all these suspicions could be dissolved, and that we knew the factory was run by Doctor No or Herr Blofeld of Fu Manchu. It still could not have been folded like a tent and spirited away in a day or so. And the United States has diplomatic relations with Sudan. (It even used these relations, not long ago, to press successfully for the deportation of bin Laden.) Was there a demarche made between the State Department and the Sudanese regime? (We want to see inside this factory right away and will interpret refusal as a hostile act.) There was not. Even Saddam Hussein was and is given more warning than that.

Well then, what was the hurry? A hurry that was panicky enough for the president and his advisors to pick the wrong objective and then, stained with embarrassment and retraction, to refuse the open inquiry that could have settled the question in the first place? There is really only one possible answer to that question. Clinton needed to look "presidential" for a day. He may even have needed a vacation from his family vacation. In any event, he acted with caprice and brutality and with a complete disregard for international law, and perhaps counted on the indifference of the press and public to a negligible society like that of Sudan, and killed wogs to save his own lousy Hyde (to say nothing of our new moral tutor, the ridiculous sermonizer Lieberman). No bipartisan contrition is likely to be offered to the starving Sudanese: unmentioned on the "prayer-breakfast" circuit.

This is why I agree with those who say that we must put Monica behind us, and stop our comic obsession with sex (or "sex" as the president's filthy-minded and incompetent lawyers are still compelled, for perjurious reasons, to call it in their briefing). Clinton must not resign, nor should he be impeached. He and his fans have earned the right to serve out their whole sentence.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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Afghanistan Bill Clinton