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Thought Crimes and Presidential Tantrums

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In an era of “hate crime” legislation, which makes it an added offense to think certain bad things when committing a real crime, we have a new forbidden thought: that President Clinton launched a savage attack on Iraq to delay, if not scuttle, the impeachment effort in the House of Representatives.

As with Mr. Clinton’s bombing last August of highly dubious terrorist locations in Sudan and Afghanistan, when cruise missiles were unleashed on Baghdad, three words entered the minds of nearly everyone: wag the dog. This provided a golden opportunity for the president’s defenders to wax indignant: How dare anyone suggest that President Clinton is so depraved as to put America’s servicemen in harm’s way purely for political advantage? Whatever credibility these defenders might have had went out the window when they immediately called on the House to postpone the impeachment debate until the Operation Desert Fox was completed.

The fact is, the Iraqi operation reeked of politics. It is obvious on the face of it that President Clinton needed some way to slow down or stop the impeachment juggernaut. The chances of accomplishing that were slim, but given his desperate position, he had to do something .

And so he did. We’ll be living with the unfortunate consequences for many years to come.

Why should we suspect Mr. Clinton of doing such a thing? The reasons are many. The mainstream press has reported that the administration helped shape the Unscom inspection team’s report, which the president then used as his reason for the attack. He clearly knew the results he wanted and needed. Moreover, he had the report several days before the Wednesday of the attack; but Wednesday was the day before the scheduled start of the impeachment debate. An earlier launch might not have had the desired effect.

Moreover, the mission was ill-defined and lacking in logic; it created its own suspicion. What was this assault designed to achieve? Mr. Clinton said he could wait no longer to attack because the holy month of Ramadan was about to begin. But then what’s the point of a bombing mission that has to end in a few days because of Ramadan?

A brief bombing had no chance of ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. 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 well protected underground. Indeed, Rod Barton, a senior UN weapons inspector, wrote that the damage done to Iraq’s weapon-makings ability was “probably marginal.” He added that “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, has also criticized the mission as pointless and suspect.

There was close to 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 to rally around their leader. Saddam may be more secure than ever, and not just in his own country. The Arab countries did not approve of 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 United States has used the UN as a cover for its unilateral goals. This was true with the Gulf War in the first place. But the president knew there was major opposition in the Security Council. The one good thing to come out of the attack, then, is that the unconscionable economic embargo on Iraq might end, since several countries wish to buy its oil.

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.