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Clinton's New War

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

In January, James Carville invoked the term "war" when proclaiming his intentions to defend the president in the strongest possible manner. Seven months later, it appears our country has a new battlefront that is demanding our immediate attention. In fact, the bombing raids against Afghanistan and Sudan took place so suddenly they seemed to startle even the most seasoned of journalists.

Secretary of State Madeline Albright has spoken of a new war on terrorism. However, the launching of this offensive is fraught with risks and laden with uncertainty about whether the outcome can be successful. If this is indeed a new war, it is one that raises serious doubts in the minds of many as to the timing and motivation of the administration's actions.

Now Americans face real perils at home and abroad. Severe retaliation is expected, and the impact has already been felt in all major cities as security measures are heightened at government buildings, primary airports and even national monuments.

Whenever conventional weapons are employed to fight terrorism, the proportionality and capability of their use against what are essentially nebulous targets create a whole host of problems.

In the bombings last week, the United States spent $79 million for satellite-guided cruise missiles to destroy what turned out to be obstacle courses, field barracks and some tents, all worth somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars. Neither of the principal targets, the training facility in Afghanistan or the factory in Sudan, appears to be of major significance to Osama Bin Laden, the terrorist leader.

The FBI never got to complete its investigation of the original bombings in Tanzania and Kenya that prompted this military response. What ever happened to the consensus building foreign policy of the Clinton administration? Rather than enlisting the support of our allies, Clinton ordered these strikes unilaterally. Our friends and foes alike found out about the raids from the press reports at the same time as the rest of us.

This approach stands out in marked contrast to the Clinton administration's reaction to other international crises. For example:

When two diplomatic employees were gunned down in Pakistan in March of 1995, there was no military response.

When a car bomb killed five innocent U.S. citizens in Saudi Arabia in November of 1995, there was no military response.

When a truck bomb in Saudi Arabia killed nineteen members of the U.S. armed forces in June of 1996, there was no military response.

When four U.S. citizens were gunned down in Pakistan in November of 1997, there was no military response.

More recently, the Clinton administration ignored its promise to penalize Iraq for violating UN resolutions concerning weapons of mass destruction.

There are other factors that distinguish this new armed initiative. Clinton couldn't wait to appear on the air and inform the American people of his decisive action. In fact, he did so twice-once in the afternoon and again in the early evening. He even borrowed a phrase from Ronald Reagan, saying there will be "no sanctuary for terrorists."

But this was not deemed to be sufficient to thoroughly notify the public. It was essential that National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Henry Shelton, Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Secretary of State Madeline Albright each hold press conferences. We were being asked by all of these officials to believe the administration's representation that this action was wholly justified and necessary at this time.

When the government of Sudan stated publicly that there were no chemical weapons plants in their country and that the U.S. destroyed two legitimate manufacturing plants, our leader found himself in need of a commodity that is hard to get but easy to lose. Credibility.

Whatever moral authority or credibility the president previously possessed slipped away as all America watched on that fateful Monday night.

The commander-in-chief must be able to act decisively. This is not possible with a cloud of distrust and cynicism hanging over the Oval Office. Unfortunately, we know that public doubt will continue to surface with every decision this president faces.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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