WASHINGTON -- Republican House members from Maryland have joined numerous other congressional Republicans in questioning the motivation and strategy behind President Clinton's decision Wednesday to order airstrikes on the eve of a House debate on whether to impeach him.
All eight Maryland representatives -- along with a nearly unanimous House -- voted yesterday for a resolution backing U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.
Three of the state's Republican lawmakers cast doubt on Clinton's decision, suggesting he may have launched the attack as a way to delay, and deflect attention from, the impending impeachment vote.
"We have legitimate questions about the president's selectivity in whether he tells the truth" about anything, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore said yesterday. "There is always [going to be] lingering questions about timing. You can't help that."
Not surprisingly, Maryland Democrats in Congress -- including both senators -- defended the president's actions.
They pointed to the argument for immediate action that was made late Wednesday by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, a former Republican senator, in a closed-door briefing on the House floor.
"This is not a close call," Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore County said with more heat than is his custom. "And I get a little bit concerned when some of my friends claim that this is political. They know it is not."
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski released a statement in which she did not address the issue of the timing of the attack but contended that the move was a reasonable response to a very menacing threat.
"This action is being taken to prevent Saddam Hussein from retaining weapons of mass destruction," Mikulski said.
"Since the end of the gulf war, the United States and the United Nations have sought to curb this international menace. We have tried sanctions and diplomacy. But Saddam Hussein has done everything he can to interfere with the inspection and destruction of his weapons programs," she said.
But Gilchrest and two other Republicans -- Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County -- sharply challenged the effectiveness of the missile attacks in reducing the ability of the Iraqi government to manufacture biological and chemical weapons.
"Saddam Hussein's weapons of destruction will not be destroyed," said Bartlett, Clinton's most persistent critic from Maryland. "President Clinton's objectives are not achievable."
Ehrlich said: "Any time you inflict damage against Saddam Hussein, it's a positive development. But this is a very limited mission of very narrow scope and domain. And that leads to questions on the bottom line, particularly when you have our fliers in harm's way."
The strike against Iraqi sites, Ehrlich argued, could have occurred any time over the past few months.
The last time Clinton ordered bombings, Ehrlich noted, was in August, against sites said to be run by the accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. That was three days after Clinton admitted he had misled the nation about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
But Cardin and others said Clinton would have undercut the credibility of U.S. policy had he not acted to enforce the weapons-control provisions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations.
"People always question motivation," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat from Southern Maryland. "Secretary Cohen made it crystal clear [Wednesday] that the only motivation of acting at this time was for military and tactical reasons."
Other Maryland Democrats who usually support the president did so again.
"By refusing to allow the United Nations inspectors proper access, Saddam Hussein has compelled a strong reaction from the U.S. and the U.K.," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"A clear warning was given to Saddam Hussein in mid-November, when he most recently provoked a crisis with the international community," Sarbanes said.
"At that time, it was made clear that any future defiance would be met with a strong forceful response. The president has now carried through on this warning," he said.
Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat, said he thought the attacks might remove Hussein as a potent threat.
"It is a very real war with major military targets, that could be legitimately crippling," Wynn said. "Over the last seven years, we have been playing this cat-and-mouse game with Saddam Hussein. What people now want is a certain amount of punishment."
Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County offered a more sympathetic reaction to Clinton's decision than her fellow party members did.
"I think everybody was most concerned and curious about the timing of it," Morella said yesterday. But, she said, "It was something that we had promised would occur if the promises of the agreement were not fulfilled."
"The response, I understand, was immediate so Saddam Hussein could not hide chemical weapons at the other sites," Morella said. "Obviously, I also hope that we have a plan that will ultimately topple Saddam Hussein."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, could not be reached for comment.
Pub Date: 12/18/98