The few, the proud, the relieved

President Clinton risked a revolt within the military if he pulled back from the brink with Iraq once again.

Published November 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Citing Saddam Hussein's perfidy and the approach of Ramadan, an embattled President Clinton Wednesday hurled scores of cruise missiles at Iraq. An important unspoken factor in his equation, however, was the specter of a revolt in U.S. military ranks if he pulled back from an attack once again.

Almost exactly one month ago, the president sent forth an immense American naval and air armada to attack Iraq, citing Saddam's refusal to cooperate with United Nations inspectors looking for evidence of Iraq's covert nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs.

Then, as now, Clinton declared Saddam's obstinacy "unacceptable." Then he pulled back. This time he attacked.

During last month's standoff, the armada was left to steam in circles, leaving some 24,000 U.S. military men and women aboard 22 ships -- eight armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles -- and 201 military aircraft -- among them 15 Air Force B-52 bombers also equipped with cruise missiles -- to polish their weapons, stand inspections and write letters home. It was an intolerable situation for military morale, and provoked their already low respect for the draft-dodging president to plunge even further.

"This is ridiculous," a senior Air Force intelligence officer wrote me shortly after November's stand down. "You can't send these people out there and back again and again and expect them to be ready, or certainly not at top readiness, when you keep doing this. Morale is awful. It's going to cause accidents. People are going to get hurt, and it's all going to be that whack-off's fault."

Clinton's relations with the military never really recovered from his first month in office, when a young White House staffer told a highly decorated officer that she didn't like his uniform, and the fledgling administration uncorked its gays in the military initiative. Somalia, with its film of the corpses of American soldiers dragged through the streets, plunged relations further and nearly blue-lined after news broke that Clinton had kept the Joint Chiefs out of the decisionmaking on the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan last August.

All this may pale against the specter of thousands of Iraqi civilians dying at the hands of American smart bombs and cruise missiles, but it surely was a pivotal factor the struggling president had to take into account when considering Saddam's provocation again this week. If he'd ignored it, the wrath of ordinary military men and women might have seeped, if not surged, into public view -- providing even more ammunition to anti-Clinton Republicans. Losing the military's respect is a much better reason to string up the commander in chief than lying about a blow job.

Gearing up to wage war and risk lives, organizationally and emotionally, is the hardest task a military unit has. Going into battle is a snap compared with getting there. Equipment is loaded, trucks move, tanks roll, ships weigh anchor, planes take off, troops move out. Spouses, mothers, fathers, parents and children kiss each other goodbye, with the thought in their mind that they might never see each other again.

Mobilization is an incredibly dangerous stage. A military unit is one of the most dangerous environments on earth -- more toxic, and more accident-prone, than an open-hearth steel factory. Body-crunching accidents can, and do, happen. The Pentagon factors in scores, if not hundreds, of troops to die in ordinary accidents during a huge military deployment. More American troops died from traffic accidents in Operation Desert Storm than in the assaults on Iraq and Kuwait in 1991.

Critics are already knocking Clinton for playing "Wag the Dog," attempting to divert attention from his impeachment woes. But they are wrong. Iraq is a dangerous regional power, with biological, chemical and perhaps even nuclear weapons, and a demonstrated disposition to use them. Minus his personal problems, Clinton's position in relation to Iraq today is more akin to Dwight Eisenhower's on the eve of D-Day in 1944, when rain squalls and high seas kept the troops bottled up and increasingly restive in England.

It was now or never for Eisenhower the tactician then, and it is now or never for Clinton now.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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