WASHINGTON -- "When in trouble, make some rumble," the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater used to say.
President Clinton is putting that stratagem to the ultimate test, his critics charged yesterday, by bombing Iraq on the eve of his expected impeachment by the House.
Republican attacks on the timing of Clinton's decision raised serious questions, for the first time, about whether his ability to govern had been seriously impaired.
In the short run, the turn of events in the Persian Gulf has bought time for Clinton in his struggle to remain in office. The House last night delayed for an uncertain period the action on impeachment that was scheduled to begin today.
But Clinton's decision to respond with military force to Saddam Hussein is unlikely to help the president much in the impeachment fight.
When the House votes, perhaps as early as this weekend, Clinton is almost certain to be impeached -- barring some unforeseen circumstance, such as the overthrow or death of Hussein.
If anything, the timing of the missile attack could make it more difficult for the White House and its allies in Congress to work out a deal in the Senate that would allow him to serve out the final two years of his term.
Only minutes before the bombs started falling, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott rocked Washington with a statement criticizing Clinton's decision.
The incoming speaker of the House, Rep. Robert L. Livingston, under pressure from conservative Republicans to keep the heat on Clinton, pointedly refused to answer when asked whether he thought the president's actions had been motivated by a desire to change the subject away from impeachment. But he went on to suggest that the timing was quite curious.
Open dissent from a senior congressional leader to a presidential decision involving U.S. military forces hasn't been heard here since the Vietnam War.
Lott's comments signaled, for the first time, that the highly partisan impeachment battle was leading Republicans to openly question the legitimacy of Clinton's authority to govern.
The second-ranking Republican in the House, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, made that charge bluntly. He said Clinton is "losing his ability to lead" because his credibility had been shredded by "months of lies."
Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation said: There is a parallel to Vietnam in the sense that Lyndon Johnson lost a significant amount of trust with members of Congress. It does complicate things for Clinton if he wants to reach an agreement with the majority leader of the Senate."
Unlike the careful briefing of congressional leaders before the missile strike against suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan on Aug. 20, yesterday's action took place with relatively little advance notice to most on Capitol Hill.
Joining the criticism were many Republicans, including prominent members of Congress and former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who said the timing of Clinton's decision, on the eve of a scheduled impeachment vote, "smells to high heaven."
The chairman of the House Rules Committee, retiring Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon of New York, said it was "obvious that [the president] is doing it for political reasons."
Hyde: 'No cynical ploy'
Other Republicans, however, were supportive of Clinton's action, including one of the leaders of the drive to impeach him. "I don't think it's a cynical ploy," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Clinton did not directly address this criticism in his 15-minute TV address to the nation. Explaining the timing of his decision, Clinton said he had acted, on the unanimous advice of his military advisers, to surprise Iraq before it could protect its military forces.
In the only reference to his own plight, Clinton said Hussein was miscalculating if he thought the House impeachment debate might "distract Americans" or weaken the U.S. military response.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, a former Republican senator and congressman, offered the administration's strongest rebuttal of criticism of the decision to launch the strike yesterday.
"I am prepared to place 30 years of public service on the line to say the only factor was what was in America's best interest," he told reporters.
Clinton isn't the first president to be accused by his opponents of trying to deflect public opinion with a military move.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion of Grenada one day after a terrorist bombing in Beirut had killed 241 Marines, an incident for which Reagan's critics said the president himself was to blame.
"Grenada was really about Lebanon," former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, a Democrat, would later write.
But the lengthening shadow of the White House crisis is increasingly shaping perceptions of Clinton's actions, at least among congressional leaders.
Just four months ago, when Clinton sent missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan, only two Republican senators, Daniel R. Coats of Indiana and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, were openly skeptical about its possible link to the presidential sex scandal.
Just three days earlier, Clinton had testified before the federal grand jury and had made a nationally televised address that was widely regarded as a political failure.
Public opinion unknown
Still to be heard from -- and potentially decisive, on the question of Clinton's fate -- is the American public.
Up to now, Clinton's impeachment problems have had no effect on public approval of his performance as president, which has remained extremely high, or on support for his foreign policy.
"People have kept Bill Clinton's predicament on one side of their brain and opinions about his international policies on the other side of the brain," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, which conducts independent opinion surveys.
Historically, the public tends to rally behind the president when U.S. forces go into combat overseas, he noted.
Kohut acknowledged that recent polling, which shows that a growing number of Americans want Clinton to resign, "could be the beginning of something" but that it was too early to say for sure.
Ed Rogers, a White House political aide under Reagan and President George Bush, said he thought that the number of Americans who take a cynical, "wag-the-dog" attitude toward Clinton's latest move would be offset by those who sympathized with him for having to cope with a major foreign policy crisis in the midst of the impeachment ordeal.
Pub Date: 12/17/98