Clinton's airstrike motives questioned Many wonder if attack was meant to distract from Lewinsky matter

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton announced the surprise U.S. missile attacks on terrorist-related targets in Afghanistan and Sudan on Thursday, he said he ordered the action for four reasons. But many people wondered if there was a fifth.

Pundits, politicians, the media and a sizable chunk of the public questioned whether the president was acting, at least in part, with hopes of shifting attention from his travails in the Monica Lewinsky matter.


Most Americans, including Republican leaders, appear to support the administration's military strike against the two terrorist facilities. But the fact that Clinton's motives were immediately suspect suggests the Lewinsky matter -- specifically, Clinton's admission Monday night that he "misled" people -- may have already had an impact on his presidency, some experts say.

"His credibility is severely damaged," says Mark Rozell, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist. "I don't think there is a politically minded person who did notimmediately question whether the president was acting genuinely in our national security interest or to get beyond this scandal and create a rally-round-the-flag phenomenon. It immediately came to my mind."


Rozell says the Lewinsky scandal appears to have had "a more substantive impact" on the president and policy-making process than most people anticipated.

"Throughout the remainder of his presidency, should he survive," says Rozell, "I don't think there is anything he will do that won't be looked upon with some suspicion."

It took only a half-hour from the time Clinton first announced the military action Thursday from Martha's Vineyard for a reporter at the Pentagon to ask whether the attack was intended as a distraction from Clinton's personal and legal problems -- the "Wag the Dog" scenario, named for the recent movie in which a U.S. president embroiled in a sex scandal stages a war to distract the nation.

Aside from the inevitable and expected reporters' questions about such a prospect, two Republican senators expressed their suspicions about Clinton's motives, even as the GOP leadership fell in line behind the administration. Former Clinton official George Stephanopoulos noted Friday that "the fact that people are even raising the question is a political problem."

And around the country, editorials couldn't help but comment on the juxtaposition of events, the consensus being that -- while the military strike was justified -- questions about it underscored Clinton's fragile credibility in the wake of the Lewinsky matter.

"Bill Clinton has blown away his cache of credibility," said the Hartford Courant. "As long as this president remains in office, his motives in times of crisis will be questioned," noted the Kansas City Star.

Asked Friday if the president was concerned about an erosion of trust in him, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said, "The president has confidence in the judgments of the American people and he accepts the judgments of the American people, and he'll do his job and let the chips fall where they do."

McCurry dismissed the notion that much of the public was skeptical, saying that as Americans learned more about the president's action against the terrorist network suspected of staging the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, "I think they will be pleased that the president acted to diminish this threat to them."


University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles O. Jones says, under ordinary circumstances, few would question whether Clinton's actions in ordering the missile strikes were justified.

"After all, we lost embassies and people, and hundreds of Kenyans were killed," says Jones. "The very idea that people would raise questions of the timing of the strike and Clinton's motives is a measure of the problems he has here and abroad."

Jones and others believe the greatest problems for Clinton may be in the international arena where terrorist sympathizers and other enemies can find more grist for their anti-U.S. sentiments in the president's troubles.

History of skepticism

Polls conducted Thursday show that anywhere from 66 percent to 80 percent of Americans support the U.S. attack on terrorist sites. But about one-third of the public believes that Clinton ordered the strikes mainly to divert attention from his personal problems. And more than half believe that the Lewinsky matter has affected Clinton's ability to perform his job effectively.

Some Democrats and Clinton supporters believe the skepticism surrounding the military action is typical and no way reflects serious or permanent problems.


"I don't think this is any bigger problem for Clinton than for any other president who, at one point or another, has taken military action and been accused of having done so for domestic purposes," says Jody Powell, former press secretary to President Jimmy Carter.

As for the polls showing about one-third of the nation doubting Clinton's motives, Powell says, "I think about two-thirds/one-third as good as it gets."

Powell points to President Ronald Reagan's invasion of Grenada in 1983, which, he notes, was met with similar skepticism by those who thought the president was trying to divert attention from the deadly bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon that had occurred days earlier.

"It is something every president has to deal with and has dealt with," says Powell.

Separating public, private

Clinton critic William Bennett, the former education secretary who has written extensively on values and virtue, says the questions over Clinton's motives highlight the importance of character. "This is why you want somebody in the White House whose word you can trust," says Bennett, who has called for Clinton's resignation.


He says this matter illustrates the difficulty separating the private and the public, a distinction the public seems to have made, judging from the last seven months of polls showing that Americans believed the president probably lied about his relationship with Lewinsky but still approved of his job performance.

"Private character, public character -- let's compartmentalize. You can't," says Bennett. "This shows you can't."

But Clinton allies disagree, pointing to the president's still high favorability ratings at the end of perhaps the most damaging, tumultuous week of his presidency. A Gallup Poll showed Clinton's job approval rating in the 60 percent to 65 percent range all last week, about where it has been throughout the entire Lewinsky scandal.

'Ultimate lame duck'

The high marks from the public are at odds with the decidedly low marks Clinton earned from the Washington political community that almost uniformly panned his Monday night address on the Lewinsky matter.

The White House is counting on continued support from the public to help Clinton overcome his current difficulties and regain his political footing.


But even as Clinton returns to the affairs of state with what at the moment would appear to be the public's blessing, Rozell says the president has become "the ultimate lame duck."

"His ability to project stature and convince other political leaders that opposing him will be costly is limited," says the University of Pennsylvania political scientist.

What's more, Rozell believes that someone as poll-conscious as Clinton is likely to factor into his presidential decisions concern about how his motives will be viewed by the public. "I don't see how anyone could get beyond that," he says.

But some Clinton associates dismiss such notions. "I don't think there's much danger of that," says Don Baer, Clinton's former director of communications. "The president makes very responsible decisions when it comes to the public and his job and he's well aware of the gravity of the decisions he has to make."

Pub Date: 8/23/98