Clinton's Hail Mary

A political action that couples sex with death

WASHINGTON— Was that a tomahawk missile in his pants or was Bill Clinton just happy to see Richard Butler's report? Even before the bombs actually rained down on Baghdad, cries of "wag the dog" went up from Capitol Hill to Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, and accusations characterizing the UNSCOM chairman as a geopolitical handmaiden to his beleaguered American patron began to fly like lethal airborne ordnance.

Such speculation was hardly untoward: As former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter ably demonstrated earlier this year, Butler does seem to take the Clinton administration's input more seriously than that of his UN bosses. In another vein, it was on the same day Monica Lewinsky gave her grand jury testimony that Clinton commenced an utterly unnecessary bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan under the pretext of immediate "clear and present danger." And, if we reach a little further into the recess of memory, we recall that it was on the eve of Gennifer Flowers's revelations in 1992 that then governor Clinton returned to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a retarded African American.

But despite the existence of a novel pattern of political action that couples sex with death, two neglected realities borne out of the latest round of bombings stand virtually unacknowledged. One is that while impeachment considerations likely factored into Clinton's decision, the latest attack had more to do with the continued pursuit of a hopelessly inept and unnecessarily cruel approach to the Iraq question. The other is that Clinton's actions are more easily— and appropriately— impeachable.

AP / Wideworld

"At least George Bush went through the motions of getting UN approval and a supporting congressional resolution," says Francis Boyle, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law who specializes in international and constitutional legal issues. "This was just naked aggression. He's clearly in violation of the War Powers Clause of the Constitution, the 1973 War Powers Resolution, the UN Charter, and the UN Security Council resolutions on Iraq. This is a subversion of constitutional government, and he should be impeached for it."

It's always been hard to say what's more amazing about Clinton: his willingness to use his office for self-gain, or his ability to simultaneously co-opt Republican positions and get his fellow Democrats to abandon traditional principles in the name of defending his perpetually imperiled posterior. During the Judiciary Committee's proceedings, for example, New York's Jerrold Nadler held that LBJ should have been impeached for deceiving Congress into passing the Gulf of Tonkin resolution; rather than publicly pondering if a similar standard might apply to Clinton's attacks on Iraq and Sudan, Nadler, like so many other Democrats, rallied round the flagpole.

But last Thursday night, Democrat David Skaggs of Colorado took the floor and— in a speech no one bothered to report— all but called for Clinton's impeachment for the Iraq attack. "President Clinton acted in violation of the Constitution in ordering these attacks without authority of Congress," the retiring Democrat and defender of Clinton against Ken Starr said, stating the painfully obvious and blasting his House colleagues for "default[ing] on our responsibility . . . to insist" on accepting their prescribed legal role.

"The president," Skaggs continued, "to the extent that he relies on a strict reading on the Constitution for other purposes, should adhere to a strict reading of the War Powers Clause. Instead, his administration engages in a contrived bit of legal sophistry to conjure up a pretext of legality where none exists. Shame on him," Skaggs fumed. "And shame on us for letting other presidents and this one take away one of the most important powers which the American people have a right to expect us here to exercise on their behalf."

Lest one dismiss Skaggs's point of view, George Bush— even with a congressional resolution and UN approval— was concerned about the possibility of ending up in the dock: "I'm going to have to share credit with Congress and the world if it works quick," Bush wrote in a December 20, 1990, diary entry, but "if it drags out, not only will I take the blame, I will probably have impeachment proceedings filed against me." Representative Henry Gonzales of Texas did, in fact, have Boyle draft impeachment resolutions against Bush. And it wasn't the first request Boyle had received, from either side of the aisle.

"In the early '80s, both Senator Daniel Moynihan and Representative Dan Crane, a conservative Republican, called me asking how to get the Marines out of Lebanon," Boyle says. "My advice was, because the president had sent them there in violation of the Constitution and the WPR, to get them out and bring UN forces up, or consider impeachment. Later on, with Grenada, with Panama— both impeachable— defenders of the presidents cited the 'commander in chief' line in the Constitution, even though the Constitution clearly says it's Congress's job to declare war or issue letters of mark and reprisal [the authorizations for smaller-scale actions]. Instead, Congress has continued to abrogate its powers and responsibilities. And now you're seeing liberal Democrats making the same arguments the Reaganites and Bushites were making."

Which— when applied to the Clinton administration and not Democratic legislators— isn't entirely surprising, given that the Clinton administration inherited a bad Iraq policy from Bush and made it worse. When the UN Security Council passed its Iraqi sanctions resolutions in 1991, it tied the lifting of the sanctions to disarmament, weapons inspections, reparations, and cessation of internal repression. It did not, however, stipulate that Saddam Hussein remove himself from power. Yet a month later, both Bush and then secretary of state James Baker said that the U.S. line was no end to sanctions "as long as Saddam Hussein is in power." Shortly before his inauguration, Clinton indicated he'd be willing to discuss a change of situation with Saddam, but then began to echo the Bush position.

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