As bombs rain on Baghdad, the House impeaches Bill Clinton
In the kinder, gentler Washington of, oh, about a year ago, people could count on a few sure things. Politicians would huff and puff, and life would go on. The intimate details of people's sex lives would not be laid out for public consumption by the official government printing office. And when all else failed, everyone could at least unite around their hatred for that modern-day devil figure, Saddam Hussein.
The fact that even Saddam had by last week lost his power to make Washington’s warring factions halt their hostilities spoke volumes about the bitterness that divides them. If President Bill Clinton, as his enemies immediately suggested, had hoped to buy time by launching a four-day aerial barrage against Iraq on the very eve of a vote to impeach him in the House of Representatives, the move backfired. Instead of retreating, the Republicans who were calling for his head moved in for the kill. With a pause of just 24 hours to acknowledge that American troops were once again raining bombs and missiles upon Iraq, they pushed on with their own relentless political bombardment of Clinton.
Suddenly, simultaneously, he was both commander-inchief and the first elected president ever to suffer the ignominy of impeachment. At 1:20 p.m. last Saturday, the House passed the first article of impeachment, dividing almost exactly along party lines. Only five Democrats joined the Republican majority to approve the article by a vote of 228 to 206, and just five Republicans crossed the other way to oppose it. The article alleges that the President perjured himself during testimony last August before the grand jury investigating the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and charges that Clinton “has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the Presidency, has betrayed his trust as President and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice.”
It brought Clinton to the lowest point of what had become—in the instant phrase of the moment—a split-screen presidency. On one screen: a parade of congressmen alternately defending and denouncing him for the web of deceit he wove to cover up his adulterous affair with young Lewinsky. On the other: night-vision images of explosions rocking Baghdad and the antiseptic voices of U.S. commanders detailing the damage they had done to Saddam’s ability to threaten the world with so-called weapons of mass destruction. The dual crises of impeachment and Iraq interwove in sometimes jarring ways. When Clinton spoke from the Oval Office, visibly strained after an exhausting threeday trip to the Middle East and days of futilely attempting to stem the tide of impeachment, he told Americans that America’s message to Saddam was clear: “If you act recklessly you will pay a heavy price.” Too bad Clinton did not heed his speechwriters’ advice. Three days later, his own reckless acts with Lewinsky just steps away from the Oval Office and the lies he told to keep it all quiet cost him the heaviest price a president can pay short of being forced from office. There were, however, victories for Clinton. The House approved only two of the four articles of impeachment brought against him—the one charging that he perjured himself before the grand jury, and another alleging that he obstructed justice by, among other things, urging Lewinsky to lie about their liaison. It rejected two other articles— including one charging Clinton with committing perjury during a deposition in Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit against him. That could turn out to be crucial: even many Democrats had acknowledged that Clinton almost surely lied at that time, such as when he denied having “sexual relations” with Lewinsky and said he could not even recall being “alone” with her. The defeat of that article means that his lawyers will have an easier time defending him against the remaining charges.
Clinton’s associates say that, at least until the Lewinsky scandal burst upon Washington last January, he often pondered where historians will eventually rank him in the pantheon of presidents. Now he knows: along with Andrew Johnson, who on Feb. 24, 1868, became the only other president to be impeached by the House. Johnson, elected as vice-president and elevated after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, was sent to trial in the Senate, where he won by a single vote. Clinton must now face a similar ordeal, starting in early January when the Senate reconvenes (page 65). Conventional wisdom has long held that the Senate is highly unlikely to convict Clinton and eject him from office. A two-thirds majority is needed for that, and Republicans hold just 55 of the 100 Senate seats— meaning that 12 Democrats would have to join them to pronounce the President guilty. But with impeachment momentum still strong, Clinton’s prospects in the Senate no longer look quite so sure. Even before the House cast its votes, his aides were already looking ahead. According to one report, their plans included trying to enlist respected former Democratic senator George Mitchell—who brokered the Good Friday peace agreement on Northern Ireland—to lead the President’s defence in the upper chamber.
William Jefferson Clinton wilfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony to the grand jury
William Jefferson Clinton ... has prevented, obstructed and impeded the administration of justice
Critics questioned the President’s motives on Iraq
With Republicans determined to hold Clinton accountable, impeachment appeared inevitable for days before the House made it official. But when it finally came, it still held the power to shock.
Until last week, the experts assumed that a president would not be impeached without broad public support and agreement by significant groups in both major parties—as happened when Richard Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment during the Watergate scandal in 1974. This time, there was no such bipartisan agreement: Democrats stood firm against impeachment, arguing unsuccessfully that Clinton should instead be censured by Congress. And opinion surveys show that is what the public wants. By margins of approximately two to one, Americans have told pollsters that they oppose impeachment—all the while agreeing that their President did in fact lie to them about the Lewinsky affair.
The yawning gap between public opinion and the passions of the politicians was not the only striking factor helping to shape Clinton’s fate. A generation’s worth of increasingly bitter partisan infighting laid the basis for it—beginning with Nixon’s downfall and stretching through a string of scandals. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, lamented in the House that what began “as a solemn and necessary process to force a president to adhere to the rule of law has grown beyond our control, so that now we are routinely using criminal accusations and scandal to win the political battles and ideological differences we cannot settle at the ballot box.”
As if any more proof of that were needed, the Republicans were thrown into chaos even as they gathered on Saturday morning to impeach the man who has twice beaten them for the presidency. Robert Livingston, whom they chose only a month ago to succeed the discredited Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House, stood before the congressmen and dropped his own bombshell. He would step aside as Speaker, he said, and quit politics entirely because of revelations that he had not been faithful to Bonnie, his wife of 33 years. Iivingston made the admission of adultery two days earlier, after he learned that Hustler magazine was preparing an article based on information from several women who claimed to have had affairs with him. Republicans then lined up behind Dennis Hastert of Illinois to be their new leader.
Livingston was just the latest of a string of prominent Republicans who found their own extramarital activities suddenly revealed as the case against Clinton ground on, and it set off a new round of handwringing among the politicians. “We are starting to offer up sacrificial lambs to whatever terrible disease this is,” Paul Kanjorski, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, told Maclean’s as he stood in the Speaker’s Lobby adjacent to the House chamber moments after Livingston quit. Livingston himself said he wanted to send a message to the White House by resigning: “I must set the example that I hope President Clinton will follow.”
That, at least, is one thing that will almost certainly not happen. “Resigning—it’s not in his DNA,” said Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California. Clinton’s defenders rallied around him—led by his wife, Hillary, who made the extraordinary gesture of travelling to Capitol Hill on the morning of Impeachment Day to thank Democrats for supporting her husband. Clinton himself later stepped onto the south lawn of the White House, promised to keep working until “the last hour of the last day of my term,” and immediately launched his campaign for redemption. He sounded the notes that Democrats will repeat in coming weeks as they fight to make sure that the Senate does not convict him—arguing for a compromise solution to end his ordeal as quickly as possible.
Clinton’s sudden attack against Iraq came just as congressmen were gathering in Washington for what looked to be a certain vote for impeachment. The White House had held out hope that two dozen or so moderate Republicans might break ranks with their party. But early in the week they announced one by one how they planned to vote—and the news was all bad for Clinton. Republicans like Jack Quinn of New York,
Tom Campbell of California, Nancy Johnson of Connecticut and a dozen more came out to say they had weighed the evidence produced by independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the House judiciary committee, and concluded that the President had lied and deserved to be impeached.
The impeachment train seemed about to leave the station—when the White House and the Pentagon started beating the war drums against Iraq. At 4:50 p.m. EST on Wednesday, just after midnight in Baghdad, the first U.S. cruise missiles slammed into military targets in the Iraqi capital. The House was scheduled to start debating impeachment at 10 a.m. the next morning, but those plans were thrown into disarray. What happened next violated the long-standing American political tradition of supporting the commander-in-chief when he orders U.S. troops into combat, no matter his party allegiance. Senior Republicans openly questioned Clinton’s motives. Was it, they asked, a too-cute replay of Wag the Dog, the movie in which a president embarrassed by a sexual indiscretion diverts the nation’s attention with a convenient little war in the final days of his re-election campaign?
Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, announced unapologetically that he could not support the action: “Both the timing and the policy are subject to question.” Gerald Solomon, chairman of the House rules committee, was even blunter. “It’s obvious they’re trying to do everything they can to postpone the vote in order to get as much leverage as possible,” he told a television interviewer. “For him to do this at this unbelievable time is just outrageous.” The last time Clinton ordered air strikes, in August
against terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, he had just delivered his politically disastrous testimony to the Lewinsky grand jury and Lewinsky herself was testifying. “How many times can it be pure coincidence?” wondered Porter Goss, a Florida Republican who chairs the House intelligence committee. “The real meaning of what is going on here now is that nobody believes anything.” Clinton, of course, flatly denied that political calculations played any role in his decision to bomb—or when to bomb. But his awareness that some might question his motives was apparent in his Oval Office address, when he painstakingly enumerated the list of top advisers who had concurred in his decision, “including the vice-president, secretary of defence, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the secretary of state and the national security adviser.” Could they all be in on a plot to save him from impeachment, he seemed to be asking?
Instead, U.S. officials presented the decision to bomb precisely on Wednesday night as one dictated by circumstances: Clinton’s announcement in mid-November that Washington would strike Iraq without warning if the Baghdad government did not live up to its promises to allow UN weapons inspectors to work freely; a report issued Tuesday by chief inspector Richard Butler of Australia saying that the Iraqis had indeed broken their promises; and the start last Saturday evening of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The window for a strike, their argument went, was narrow and closing fast. Internationally, Western countries including Canada backed the mission, although Russia, a longtime friend of Iraq, withdrew its ambassador from Washington in protest.
American skeptics, however, could point to more than their deep and abiding mistrust of Clinton. First, his track record on Iraq showed only timidity until last week. In November, 1997, in February, in August and again in October, Iraq prevented the UN inspectors from carrying out their mission of identifying and destroying weapons of mass destruction. Each time, Clinton shied away from military action. Why, asked his critics, the sudden enthusiasm for air strikes?
THE VIEW FROM BAGHDAD
Canadian journalist Mariam Shahin spent three weeks in Baghdad in late November and early December. An Arabic speaker, she filed this report on the thinking of Iraqi insiders from her base in Amman, Jordan:
We should have kept the hostages,” says Talib Amin. “That was the first mistake Saddam made.” Amin, 52, is a retired senior military officer and former high-ranking member of Iraq’s ruling Baath party. The hostages he is talking about were thousands of “human shields”—
foreigners detained by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the first four months of the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis. Saddam eventually let them go, and not long afterwards the U.S.-led Desert Storm air and ground war began. That makes men like Amin bitter. “We, the Iraqis, are still being held hostage," he says. “When we let them go, we gave away our strongest card.”
Amin is not alone among influential Iraqis in believing that Saddam Hussein is, if anything, too soft in dealing with the West. “A fight is a fight, and when you back down you automatically lose,” Amin says.
Some Iraqis, particularly younger ones, are angry that during his last confrontation with Washington in November, Saddam caved in at the last minute and allowed UN arms inspectors back into the country. “I am upset with the government,” says a 34-year-old Baath party activist who does not want to be named, “because they allowed these very disrespectful UN inspectors to look into Iraq’s most private affairs. It’s like displaying your underwear willingly to strangers who don’t like you.”
Understandably in Saddam’s police state, where rooms are routinely wiretapped and agents are everywhere, people do not criticize the president in public or in on-therecord interviews. But increasingly, one person will offer the indirect jibe that “the Americans have kept him in power to cripple Iraq” while another will say that he has become a tool of “those who want to destroy Iraq.” Iraqis are proud of their history, and of their former role as a wealthy Middle East nation blessed with oil, water, rich soil and a welleducated population. Many are angry about the poverty that the United Nation’s post-Gulf War sanctions have wrought. And while older people can remember the pre-Saddam years with nostalgia, younger people—who grew up under eight years of war with Iran, followed by the Gulf crisis—have no point of comparison.
In private, members of the Iraqi leadership are worried about a hardening of positions among younger party activists who blame the United States and the United Nations for blocking the country’s economic recovery. “They are quite fanatic in terms of seeing the world in black and white,” says a middle-aged Baath member who ranks among the top brass of the leadership group. “America is essentially bad because they have never seen another side to it.” In a country where might has been right for what seems an eternity, “weakness" in dealing with the enemy is viewed not as diplomacy, but as a form of failure. “Let the Americans bomb— how much damage can they do that they have not already done in the past?” a 35-year-old Baath activist named Mahmoun asked in November. Last week, he got a chance to find out.
Clinton’s defenders rallied around him
And Butler’s report, which U.S. officials cited as the trigger for their action, hardly came as a surprise. Washington had been aware of his findings for many days, and U.S. officials, the Washington Post reported, were involved in writing the document. The Pentagon had drawn up plans and positioned military equipment in the Gulf region in preparation for strikes any time after Dec. 1. But Clinton did not give the military preliminary instructions to go ahead with an attack until Sunday, Dec.
13, while he was in the Middle East, and did not issue the final order until he was flying home aboard Air Force One the following Tuesday. The attack was set for the next night—impeachment eve in Washington.
Clinton’s critics may not be able to prove the Wag the Dog thesis, but the attacks did help the President build his case against the Republicans. For weeks, as the House judiciary committee proceeded doggedly towards impeachment and the Republican majority in the full House followed its lead, Democrats concentrated on attacking the impeachment process itself as unfair and partisan. No Democrats actually stepped forward to defend Clinton’s actions in the Lewinsky affair, but they wanted to paint the inevitable outcome as illegitimate. Barney Frank, a leading Democrat from Massachusetts, posed it as part of a wider assault by extremist Republicans against mainstream values: “This is the beginning of a war, the right wing versus the country.”
The Republicans’ deep mistrust of Clinton played into that strategy. Delaying the impeachment debate might derail its momentum, they worried, so they put it off by only 24 hours. When the House finally convened on Friday morning to take up the President’s fate, the bombs and missiles were still falling on Baghdad. To be sure, as Republicans pointed out, Democrats moved to impeach Nixon while American troops were dying in Vietnam. But it did not look good. Martin Frost, a Democratic congressman from Texas, bluntly told Republicans that they might be endangering U.S. airmen by sending the wrong signals to Saddam. “The majority may well have blood on its hands by starting this proceeding today,” he said. The entire impeachment process, the Democrats in effect argued, was not only unfair and illegitimate— but unpatriotic as well.
Almost overshadowed amid the political fallout were questions about the attacks themselves, which Clinton ended on Saturday evening. American forces, backed by British Tornado fighterbombers, sent three waves of missiles and bombs at military targets throughout Iraq. The U.S. navy fired some 300 cruise missiles, including new-generation weapons that deliver warheads of 3,000
lb., while the air force sent in fighters armed with laser-guided bombs to knock out Iraqi air-defence sites. The key targets of the missiles were forces that directly support Saddam’s regime—Iraqi military intelligence headquarters in Baghdad and barracks housing elite Republican Guard troops on the outskirts of the city.
But even U.S. officials acknowledged that an air campaign is ineffective in accomplishing the key goal of Western countries: making sure that Iraq does not rebuild biological or chemical weapons or develop a nuclear program. Defence Secretary William Cohen said he has “no illusions” about how hard it is to destroy such weapons—especially since a direct hit on a chemical or biological weapons factory might spread deadly toxins. Other Pentagon officials worried that the campaign—dubbed “Desert Fox”—would achieve only limited, short-term results and could even have long-term benefits for Saddam. “Confidence is not running high,” a U.S. Navy analyst told Maclean’s during the operation.
Reconnaissance photographs showed major damage to some buildings targeted by U.S. planners. But the officials said it was unlikely that any biological or chemical weapons had been destroyed and any buildings where they might have been stored can be quickly replaced. While military intelligence headquarters appeared to have been reduced to rubble, sensitive records and scientific papers had probably been moved days before. More importantly, the scientists and military planners behind Saddam’s weapons program will be ready to restart it almost immediately.
Worse, the U.S. attack in all likelihood means a final end to the arms inspection program run by the United Nations Special Commission. Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan called the inspectors “a commission of spies” and said their mission is now over. Without UNSCOM teams in place to keep them in check, U.S. intelligence officials estimate the Iraqis could resume production of biological and chemical agents within months. “It can be argued,” said one official with the Central Intelligence Agency, “that Saddam will be in a stronger position if it is in fact his goal to produce weapons of mass destruction. Getting rid of UNSCOM is like taking off the brake.”
The assault on Iraq was the biggest military operation of Clinton’s presidency, and in any normal time it would have dominated the news. It was a measure of the extraordinary nature of last week’s events in Washington that it did not. Yet while impeachment was a humiliation for Clinton, he has many cards still to play. His opponents are leaderless and, polls last week showed, have hurt themselves among voters by pursuing him so relentlessly. He still stands to win a trial in the Senate, and the public pressure for some kind of compromise solution such as censure is sure to grow. When the historians do finally write the book on the Clinton presidency, they may well record that Saturday, Dec. 19, 1998, truly was the low point. He has nowhere to go but up. □