Clinton's Hail Mary
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.
"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.
No one in the Clinton administration, however, has embraced the hard line with as much gusto as Secretary of State Madeline Albright. While her British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, has at least paid lip service to designing and implementing an "ethical" foreign policy, Albright when presented in 1996 with the fact that sanctions had led to the deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children simply responded, "We think the price is worth it."
Despite repeated reports from the United Nations that the death toll of innocents has steadily climbed past 1 million, and despite even a plea from Pope John Paul II to end the "pitiless embargo [against] the weak and innocent [who] cannot pay for mistakes for which they are not responsible," the fundamental effect of the Clinton administration's policy of privately impeding inspections while publicly perpetuating sanctions is more Iraqi civilians dead from hunger and disease.
"Their policies of both sanctions and bombings are inconsistent with their own goals they've admitted sanctions won't take Hussein out of power, they've admitted air strikes aren't likely to take Hussein out of power, and they've admitted sanctions and air strikes aren't likely to increase access to weapons-of-mass-destruction sites," says Jon Strange, an activist who drew Albright's ire when he asked her several pointed questions about U.S. foreign policy at a public forum in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this year. "Saddam's a butcher, but he's not irrational what's his incentive to comply? I went to Iraq earlier this year to deliver medicine, and what I saw was horrifying. Because there's no chlorine, children are dying from water-borne bacteria and treatable ailments like asthma. We saw hospitals with unclean sheets, three kids to a bed, and absolutely no medicine."
According to Strange and others who have recently been to Iraq and were interviewed by the Voice, the Clinton administration has failed to face the reality that while the majority of Iraqi citizens live in fear of Saddam, the sanctions have little impact on the military, which Saddam cares about more than civilians. And earlier this month, the U.S. proved it cares more about the embargo than Iraqi citizens: members of Voices in the Wilderness, a relief group that has delivered medicine and toys to Iraqi children and families, were notified that they're facing a $163,000 fine for making their deliveries in violation of the embargo.
"It could have been worse," said Jeff Guntzel, a member of the group. "I think what's more frustrating to us right now is the bombings, which show that there seems to be no real plan about how to deal with Iraq."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- New York City's Food Pantries Are Struggling to Keep Up With a Growing Demand For Meals
Sat., Nov. 28, 12:00am
Sat., Nov. 28, 12:00pm
Sat., Nov. 28, 1:30pm
Sat., Nov. 28, 7:30pm
- As Islamophobic Rhetoric Gets Louder, NYC Muslims Fear for Their Mosques
- Forget Big Chain Theaters — Watch Movies at These Cool NYC Spots Instead