WASHINGTON -- Republican skepticism surrounding President Clinton's decision to bomb Iraq on the eve of the scheduled impeachment vote is understandable but not credible.
Like the boy who cried wolf once too often in the old children's tale, Mr. Clinton's history of political chicanery invited such skepticism. But the fact that enough Republicans had already announced their intention to vote to impeach him made clear that no such military action was going to deter the condemnation.
Indeed, reactions on Capitol Hill to Mr. Clinton's decision to send the missiles flying indicated that it only hardened the resolve of most Republicans to stick to their guns on impeachment.
For once, however, cooler heads did prevail among the Republicans on honoring the traditional policy of supporting the deployment of U.S. forces once they had been ordered into action. Many Republicans made a distinction between backing Mr. Clinton and the U.S. military forces, but they did join in a solid front behind the mission itself.
The notable exception was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, who flatly said he could not support the military action because "both the timing and the policy are subject to question." It was a statement that he is likely to regret, although he did add that "all Americans will fully support our troops in battle."
Mr. Lott explained his opposition in terms of what he said would be the ineffectiveness of the attack, saying he was against endangering soldiers for action "that will not effect real change" in Iraq. But the public impression will inevitably be that he didn't think Mr. Clinton's motives could be trusted.
Mr. Clinton had to recognize that he would trigger deep suspicion with his decision to attack Iraq on the very eve of the House debate on impeaching him. It seemed surreal that this crisis would rise to the level of military action at precisely this time.
For that reason, the assurances of Secretary of Defense William Cohen, a longtime Republican and former senator, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry Shelton that the attack and its timing were imperative were particularly critical.
Beyond the desire to strike another blow at Iraq's suspected facilities for developing weapons of mass destruction, the rationale was that the attacks were necessary to preserve Mr. Clinton's credibility. After all, a month ago, Mr. Clinton did warn Saddam Hussein that he had one "last chance" to accommodate U.N. inspectors.
Some in the administration said with straight faces that they were appalled that any of the good legislators would even suggest that Mr. Clinton might be playing games again. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright professed to see the expressions of skepticism "very unseemly and unbecoming to members of Congress." Under the circumstances, it would have been surprising if congressional eyebrows hadn't been raised.
Die is cast
One result of the whole business is to confirm again Mr. Clinton's ability to compartmentalize his problems and responsibilities and function under incredible pressure. That demonstration will no doubt hearten his supporters. But no matter how well he stands up under the pressure, his critics are past the point of being impressed. The die is cast on impeachment.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 12/18/98