Despite What Some Still Maintain, the Lewinsky Scandal Didn't Affect Clinton's Iraq Strategy



Lee Ruddin is a roundup editor at the History News Network. He lives in the UK.

Writing in response to the airing of the latest film in PBS’s American Experience presidential series, Charles Duelfer said in a Washington Post op-ed last month that Clinton "overlooked … the important role [the Monica Lewinsky scandal] played in the confrontation of Iraq in 1998." The "affair meant," the former United Nations (U.N.) weapons inspector contended, that the White House "had been weakened ... Clinton, in the Iraqis’ view, was weakened." Duelfer, author of Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq reiterated that, in the Iraqi view, the president did not "have the will to do anything that would threaten [Saddam] Hussein’s regime."

Despite the insight Deulfer provides in the aforementioned book, his article is littered with oversights. Take the factors affecting Bill Clinton’s (un)willingness to use force, for example. These had been shaped by a set of principles a decade-and-a-half prior to Operation Desert Fox. What is more, it was the forty-second president who, with the signing of the Iraq Liberation Act (ILA), cleared the way for the forty-third to topple the tyrant in 2003. Let us deal with the former first and the latter second.

Clinton’s air-only strategy in Iraq can be considered as "immaculate" (a term novelist Bob Shacochis originally applied to the 1994 action in Haiti). He was evidently attracted to a no-strings attached strategy, what I refer to as “playing away” -- but why? The answer is simple: Clinton’s foreign policy outlook was formed by the Vietnam War. "The Clinton team," says British Americanist John Dumbrell (Clinton’s Foreign Policy: Between the Bushes, 1992-2000), "even those with little direct experience of the Vietnam conflict, were also concerned to respect the 'lessons Vietnam'." The Democratic Party as a whole, journalist David Halberstam wrote (War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals), "was still badly bedeviled by Vietnam." It is of no surprise to learn, then, that "the Vietnam Syndrome remained alive and well," as defense policy critic Jeffrey Record wrote (Strategic Studies Quarterly, 1:1), "in the first administration led by a president for whom the Vietnam War was the primary foreign-policy referent experience."

To understand how such an outlook came to dominate the Clintonites' thinking, you need to go back to 1982 and the attempt to codify the Pentagon’s post-Vietnam approach to the use of force in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s intervention in Lebanon. Speaking before the National Press Club, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger outlined six preconditions to be met before committing combat personnel. Weinberger’s cabinet rival, Secretary of State George Shultz, criticized the Weinberger Doctrine as "the Vietnam Syndrome in spades, carried to an absurd level, and a complete abdication of the duties of [global] leadership."

This did not stop Weinberger’s “tests” from being carried over into George H.W. Bush’s administration by General Colin Powell, though; a man who, let us not forget, had forged his attitude toward the use of force in the crucible of Vietnam before serving as Weinberger’s military aide and assistant on “The Uses of Military Power” speech. Appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, Powell internalized an interpretation that constituted a high hurdle against using force.

During the presidential interregnum, between Clinton’s 1992 election victory and his 1993 inauguration, Powell penned an article for Foreign Affairs in which he warned the president-elect against repeating the mistakes of Vietnam in the Balkans. He critiqued gradualism and cautioned against deploying "military forces into a crisis with an unclear mission they cannot accomplish." "Notably," though, military historian Andrew Bacevich (The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War) highlights, "the purpose of the Powell Doctrine remained consistent with that of the Weinberger Doctrine": aiming to prevent, not propel, intervention.

One of the criteria of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine to be met is the assurance of popular or congressional support. (It is here that an assertion about the readiness of the public to suffer casualties enters the decision-making process as elected officials debate questions pertaining to the use of force.) Officials continue to erroneously believe – notwithstanding several studies based on polling data demonstrating the contrary -- that the public cannot withstand casualties. This has resulted in skewed policy choices which, in turn, have caused operations to be conducted ineffectively. The "negative effects of the casualty-aversion assertion," military strategist Richard A. Lacquement (United States Naval War College Review, 57:1) informs us, led Clinton to play away in Iraq: to seek what another strategic thinker, Eliot A. Cohen (Foreign Affairs, 73:1), says is "gratification without commitment."

Given that "America’s brightest and best aspire not to govern Mesopotamia but to manage MTV," historian Niall Ferguson writes in Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, military planners have sought to substitute manpower for firepower. Their searching has resulted in an emphasis on the utility of air power, applied at great distance and at great height, to accomplish great destruction. Bacevich (American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy) sees the use of "cruise missiles … [l]aunched from ships… operating “over the horizon”… [as] a modern equivalent of old-fashioned gunboats." Even before the tragic events in Somalia, Bacevich recalls, Clinton had experimented with "neo-gunboat diplomacy."

In response to an alleged plot to assassinate the 41st President in April 1993, the 42nd ordered an air attack in June which struck at the heart of Saddam’s intelligence network. Three years later, in Operation Desert Strike, Clinton again ordered a cruise missile attack, this time against targets in the south after Hussein’s henchmen ventured north to fight the Kurds. Two years later, in 1998, when U.N. weapons inspectors charged with dismantling Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs were expelled from the country, he once more ordered air strikes against a vast array of Baghdad buildings. It is against this backdrop that Operation Desert Fox (authorized as Clinton faced impeachement at home) was carried out and which, Deulfer overlooks, was a mission that encapsulated Clinton’s strategic tendency to play away and suffer no U.S. casualties.

"It appeared that the use of air power rather than ground troops to resolve conflicts was becoming an established strategy and one designed with the Vietnam Syndrome in mind," foreign-policy expert Trevor McCrisken (American Exceptionalism and the Legacy of Vietnam) posits. This explains why George W. Bush, much like Clinton before him, adhered to the main tenets of the syndrome when confronting Saddam’s Iraq. It is commonly believed, although it remains an argument for another day, that 9/11 then “trumphed” the Vietnam Syndrome and enabled the neoconservatives within the Bush administration (notwithstanding the presence of Powell as Secretary of State) to take the U.S. into another Vietnam-like quagmire in Iraq.

It is also important to note, as I state at the outset, the congressional passing of the ILA, which obligated the administration to make regime change an "explicit" goal of its policy through the encouragement and financing of opposition forces both inside and outside the country. Commentators and politicians alike interpreted the legislation, signed by Clinton into law on October 31, 1998, as a major shift in policy away from containment. Beltway insiders Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier (America Between the Wars -- 11/9 to 9/11: The Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror) see “containment plus” for what it was: "a way of buying time in the hope[…] that different circumstances … allow[ed] for more decisive action’; while one Senator went as far as to say the Act was 'a major step forward in the final conclusion of the Persian Gulf War.'"

The search for truth, as evidenced above, is easy to find since it is not hiding from those who wish to seek it out. It goes without saying that the author of Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq, should have uncovered such facts before putting pen to paper over an "episode from the Clinton presidency" and, ironically enough, talking about "desperate ignorance."

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