WASHINGTON, D.C. — It may have been the first time in history a president redeemed himself for bombing by bombing. It was also a reminder of the truly bipartisan nature of the National Security State. Early last week, President Clinton was, according to his personal political windsock Orrin Hatch, “a jerk” for his surly and not-well-received national address about “that woman.” But as soon as Hatch felt the Tomahawk breeze on Thursday, Clinton became a president “I want to applaud.” Last Monday night, by 10:08, pundits and critics had ruthlessly deconstructed Clinton’s statement of regret and defiance; on Thursday, he was being praised for delivering a speech with hedging phrases like “convincing information” and “high confidence,” used to characterize the evidence (a word never mentioned) against probable embassy-bombing mastermind Osama bin Laden.
“Watching Clinton’s speech, I kept thinking, ‘Who’s buying this?’ ” says As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at California State University. “He said bin Laden was a threat because he has a hatred for American democracy. I’ve listened to bin Laden in Arabic, and I can assure you, I’ve never heard him say he hates the U.S., because it has free elections.” But if history is any indicator, when it comes to retaliatory bombings, people rarely care about details and fine points. Public opinion numbers indicate this incident is hardly exceptional: according to a Los Angeles Times
poll, 75 percent of the public support Clinton’s ordering the raid. However, a number of intelligence and foreign policy experts all agree that the American display of strength will probably create more problems than it solves.
“This was absolutely not a good idea, for a few reasons,” says Paul Walker, a former House Armed Service Committee staffer and military affairs expert. “First, it’s impractical. Second, it’s escalatory. Third, we probably just made more enemies, or at least alienated more people, than we previously had.”
According to the official administration line, one reason for targeting bin Laden’s boot camps was to not only stymie his training operations, but also to disrupt a possible conclave of terrorist chieftains. An acceptable reason on one level, says a former government defense analyst. However, he adds, one has to consider the following: “Is it truly effective — both costwise and strategically — to drop nearly $100 million worth of ordnance on a probably less-costly group of camps run by a guy who has $250 million and a background in construction?”
There’s also the question of how effective a strike is against a Man Without a Country. In the past, the theory of massive air retaliation has been based not just on simple military goals but also on political reality. Even if a national leader of a “terrorist state” is zealous or charismatic, he is, to some degree, still accountable to the citizens and the military, whose support could dry up — or even morph into angry revolt — as the bombs fall. Bin Ladin, however, is an entirely different case. He has no citizens to worry about, only a far-flung cadre ranging from known terrorist organizations to semi-autonomous cells to freelancers who merely look to him for inspiration.
“In order for a preemptive strike against a specific group to work, you’ve gotta get the guys you want,” says Chris Hellman, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information. How this action dealt with the thousands of people who have already been through bin Laden’s camps and are spread out all over the world, says Hellman, is less than clear. “And as far as ‘deterrent value’ goes, terrorists are highly motivated people who are willing to put their lives on the line or spend their own lives to get their agenda across,” he adds. “As is often the case, in the aftermath of these things, the targets are portrayed as victims and become martyrs.”
And not just to bin Laden’s hidden legions. As numerous Middle East watchers have noted, while bin Laden’s methods and extremism are hardly endorsed by the Muslim world at large, he does command a level of respect from Muslims who (not unreasonably) resent the looming and perceptively arrogant role of the U.S. government in everything from Jerusalem’s intransigence in the Israeli-Palestinian accords to the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. “This action has simply perpetuated the notion that the U.S. operates on a thorough double standard, and you’re going to see an escalation throughout the Islamic world of anti-American sentiment because of it,” says Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East expert at the Institute for Policy Studies, who cites a 1996 Israeli attack on a civilian refugee camp as an example of still-festering wounds in the Muslim world. “The U.S. stopped a Security Council condemnation. Yet the U.S. justifies this attack by citing Article 51 of the UN Charter, which, while it allows unilateral military action in self-defense, provides no exceptions for ‘deterrent’ or ‘retaliatory’ actions, and, by acting unilaterally, undermines any UN or multinational response to terrorism.”
There’s also the question of whether the bombing of the Shifa pharmaceutical plant might have been a political and intelligence blunder. At the very least, there’s curiosity as to what made bombing it so urgent. According to intelligence sources, there are at least two other facilities in Sudan more deserving of destruction. How Shifa — alleged to be producing a precursor for chemical weapons, not the weapons themselves — was part of what Clinton referred to as an “imminent threat” isn’t entirely clear.
“It raises questions,” says Walker. “I mean, you could walk into one of hundreds of pharmaceutical or chemical plants in the U.S. and accuse them of producing precursor chemicals. Maybe there was intelligence about shipping stuff to Iraq or Libya, but the real question is, what proof is there? So what if the president says there was ‘convincing evidence’ — I’ve heard that before.”
Indeed, according to a report in the London Independent, if chemical weapons were being produced there, the authorities aren’t worried about anyone finding anything in the aftermath: “There is no sign of anyone trying to hide anything,” wrote the London Observer‘s David Hirst on Sunday. “Access is easy. Much of Khartoum seems to have come to take a look. Women in long bright dresses, and even high heels, pick their way through the mud and jump across roadside gutters to get a closer view. Most stare in what seems to be disbelieving silence.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 1, 1998