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Thank You, Mr. President

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Maybe we should be grateful for and to President Clinton. Not since Richard Nixon has a tenure in the White House illustrated the evils of the political class with such clarity. Every day brings a new lesson. Libertarians get it. Let’s hope the rest of America does too.

The last few months have been most enlightening. Through much of 1998, Clinton stonewalled on what was obvious to almost everyone: that he had had an immature and foolhardy dalliance with a White House intern. Lots can be said about that affair. To me the most interesting aspect is that Clinton was willing to throw away everything he claims to care about in order to fool around with Monica Lewinsky. He knew that because of his reputation, journalists and others were looking about for just such conduct. He knew he was the defendant in a sexual-harassment suit that permitted evidence of other employer-employee sexual relations. (Indeed, he supported extension of the law to permit that evidence.) Yet he went ahead anyway, recklessly believing he wouldn’t get caught or that if he did, he could talk his way out of it, as he had so many times before.

Clearly, here is a man who believes he is the superior of all others. The rules are different for him. They must be. He is so important to the well-being of the nation. How can he be judged by the same rules as ordinary men?

Thus, while everyone can spot his lies under oath a mile away, Bill Clinton looks us in the eye and insists he never lied. It reminds me of the advice George Costanza gave Jerry Seinfeld when Jerry was about to take a polygraph test: “Remember, Jerry, it isn’t a lie if you believe it.”

Clinton well exemplifies the arrogance of power. You and I are expected to tell the whole truth when we take an oath in a court of law. Clinton can get by with answers that are “legally accurate.”

As though that lesson were not clear enough, Clinton went further by doing what rulers have done from time immemorial. He committed acts of war to take his subjects’ minds off his domestic crimes. In Henry IV, Part 2, Shakespeare has the king telling his son to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” lest the people look too closely at the regime. Bill Clinton is a master of that strategy.

Recall last August, when he testified before the federal grand jury and gave a defiant four-minute lecture to the American people. A few days later, in the comfort of Martha’s Vineyard, he launched an air attack on supposed terrorist facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan, allegedly in retaliation for the attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa. The trouble is that the nature of the targets was in great doubt for nearly everyone but the president. Authoritative observers question whether Clinton had any evidence to back up what he told the American people. A plant that he said was making chemical weapons turned out to be an aspirin factory.

We should stop and appreciate how valuable the concept of “terrorism” is to someone like Bill Clinton. Unlike another nation, terrorists are practically invisible; there is no way to disprove a president’s claim that such-and-such an action was necessary to defend against terrorism. It is the perfect all-purpose excuse for all manner of state action. It can justify everything from domestic violations of civil liberties to saturation bombing of civilians in foreign lands. No politician should be without it.

We should also note that a president has it in his power to make the supply of terrorists unlimited. U.S. meddling in foreign quarrels has as a dividend the production of angry, aggrieved people, some of whom may attack representatives of the U.S. government and even innocent civilians as well. All this is quite convenient for a president in a variety of ways, particularly someone like Bill Clinton.

It turned out, of course, that the attack in Sudan and Afghanistan was just a rehearsal. The main event came in December, when, just one day before the House of Representatives was to take up four articles of impeachment, President Clinton found it imperative to hit Iraq with more explosive power than had fallen on that country in the Persian Gulf War. We will never know the true number of casualties, but undoubtedly a fair number of poor and innocent Iraqis died so that President Clinton could cling pathetically to office.

Looked at from the president’s vantage point, it all made perfect sense. Events had taken a decidedly bad turn for him after his triumph in the November election. How many times, after all, can the Comeback Kid come back? The debate and vote on impeachment had been scheduled. Clinton faced the prospect of becoming the first elected president to be tried in the Senate for high crimes and misdemeanors. (Andrew Johnson of course took office after Lincoln was assassinated.) Was Clinton just to stand there and watch it happen?

He did what any self-respecting ruler would do: he found someone to bomb. Iraq is so convenient. Saddam Hussein is a petty and corrupt secular dictator, appropriately swarthy and mustachioed. He’s right out of central casting. Sometimes it’s hard not to suspect a secret alliance between Clinton and Saddam.

At just the perfect moment, Saddam thumbed his nose yet again at the UN, showing that even petty, swarthy, and mustachioed dictators can show good sense now and again. This gave Clinton the opening he needed. As reported in the Washington Post, Clinton intervened to ensure that the UN inspection team, UNSCOM, would issue a report with just the right tone and allegations to give him clearance for an attack.

Several days before the scheduled impeachment debate, Clinton received the report. But he didn’t launch the cruise missiles until the day before the debate. The president explained the timing by referring to the approach of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, an attack during which would have understandably angered Muslims everywhere. But if anything, that would have been an argument for starting earlier. As it is, he had to stop after a few days. But what’s the point of a few days of bombing?

A brief bombing had no chance of killing Saddam. He’s well prepared for attempts on his life. It wasn’t going to permanently destroy, or even hamper in a major way, weapons-development or research facilities. Even if the U.S. military planners knew where they were, the facilities were likely to be well protected underground. Indeed, Rod Barton, a senior UN weapons inspector, wrote that the damage done to Iraq’s ability to make weapons was “probably marginal.” He added, “The inspectors working for UNSCOM had searched for years for such arsenals; if the inspectors had not found them, it is unlikely that the United States, even with its impressive intelligence resources, would know where they were.” Scott Ritter, a former member of UNSCOM, also criticized the mission as pointless and suspect.

There was about zero chance that the bombing would cause the people of Iraq or military elements to overthrow Saddam. We’ve had enough experience with such bombing to know that it tends to make people rally around their leader. Saddam may be more secure than ever, and not just in his own country. No Arab country, including Kuwait, approved the U.S. operation, which undoubtedly has made Saddam a more sympathetic figure than ever among Arabs in the Middle East.

Finally, Mr. Clinton acted without authorization of the UN Security Council. In the past the U.S. government has used the UN as a cover for its unilateral goals. This was true with the Gulf War. But the president knew there was major opposition in the Security Council to the use of force. The one good thing that may come out of the attack is that the unconscionable economic embargo on Iraq will end, since several countries wish to buy its oil. The idea that we can make Saddam bend by starving the Iraq population is truly appalling.

The mission made no sense if the objective was to remove or tame Saddam, which is not a proper goal of the U.S. government anyway. But it makes lots of sense if we understand that President Clinton needs Saddam Hussein right where he is. If he didn’t exist, Clinton would have to create him — indeed, as Presidents Carter and Reagan did in the 1980s when the United States government armed Saddam against our then-bête noir, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

Round and round she goes; where she stops, nobody knows.

Rulers have used war and bogus foreign threats as devices to distract attention from domestic troubles for many centuries. Should we really be surprised that Bill Clinton has done it? Isn’t this the guy who told us he never had sexual relations with “that woman”?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.