• U.S.

As Washington Burns…

7 minute read
Bruce W. Nelan

It was Saturday, four days after the Monica Lewinsky story burst into the media frenzy that engulfed Washington. Bill Clinton spent most of the morning and afternoon with his political aides and lawyers trying to figure out how to deal with the crisis and agonizing over whether to brave a press conference or stand silent until after his State of the Union address. Then, at 4 p.m., he took an hour break from the mess to think about going to war. He walked into the Cabinet Room, where his top foreign and defense officials were debating whether and how to bomb Iraq, maps and target lists spread on the table. He had met with the same officials on the same issue two weeks before, and now plunged directly into the discussion. “He just picked right up,” says a participant, “where we had left off at the last meeting.”

For the Clintonites the anecdote is self-serving, but it tracks the President’s astounding ability to wall off parts of his life and focus intently on the job at hand. The performance in the Cabinet Room speaks as well to a growing worry: Will the President manage to turn his gaze overseas often enough to protect U.S. national interests? Nervous foreign governments are wondering how much clout the leader of the free world can still wield, and how fast it might drain away in the bloodletting over Interngate. As Administration officials tell it, the scandal posed no problem. And to make the point more emphatically, officials say, “He certainly has no trouble concentrating on issues of war and peace.” In other words, Clinton is thinking very carefully about whether to bomb Iraq and punish Saddam Hussein for defying U.N. arms inspectors.

Clinton has responded to paralysis at the U.N. by yanking the issue out of the Security Council and turning it into a bilateral American transaction. He dispatched Cabinet officers to capitals all over Europe and the Middle East last week. “I am not going anywhere to seek support,” said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “I am going to explain our position.” Her message: The U.S. welcomes allies, but will take to the skies alone if necessary. In Paris she managed to wring an agreement from France not to protest in public if the U.S. hits Saddam, but Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov refused to cooperate even that much.

Albright will also try to persuade leaders in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to allow U.S. planes based there to take part in any anti-Saddam offensive. So far only Britain, which has sent an aircraft-carrier task force to the gulf, stands firmly with the U.S. on the use of force. Prime Minister Tony Blair, paying an official visit to Washington this week, will repeat that pledge.

Clinton hopes that all this capital hopping will convince everyone the U.S. means what it says and that pressure will mount on Saddam to reverse course. But White House officials glumly conclude he probably won’t. To them, the term diplomatic solution means finding a way for Saddam to back down without losing too much face. It is much to be desired, says a senior adviser, “but it’s unlikely.” If it fails, Clinton is prepared to give the order to attack.

He has not decided to do so yet. The U.S. has plenty of land- and carrier-based planes and missiles in the gulf to give Saddam’s military and scientific establishment a pounding. Already 325 American warplanes are standing by, and later this week a third U.S. aircraft carrier, with 50 more attack jets, will arrive. Six of the 25 warships on station are outfitted with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can drive their warheads into targets 1,000 miles away.

But such attacks would not wipe out all of Iraq’s hidden poisons and gases, because the U.S. does not know where they are. Nor are bombs likely to topple Saddam or force him to change his ways. The planes might blast their targets, but if Saddam still maintains his defiance, Clinton has to ponder what the next American move will be. In fact, decision makers in Washington are still wrestling with the possibility that Saddam actually wants the U.S. to attack. He could then lay out his corpses for television cameras, strike a victim’s pose and fend off forever any effort to locate his weapons of mass destruction. Senior U.S. officials agree privately that the options are not good, but they end up arguing almost angrily that doing nothing is the worst one of all.

So far Americans seem to lean cautiously toward bombing, as long as it’s legal. A TIME/CNN poll shows that 60% want the U.N. to authorize the use of force and only 38% think the U.S. should go it alone. If Clinton does send in the planes, 71% of those polled believe it will be because it is in the best interest of the nation, not to divert attention from Washington scandals. The real gut check for Clinton would come if several days of bombing failed to change the fundamental equation. Saddam, his weapons of mass destruction and his Republican Guard would still be there. The U.S. could simply declare “mission accomplished” and stop. But Saddam could emerge to make a taunting speech, declare victory over the American aggressor and cut off all disarmament cooperation with the U.N. Would Clinton then be willing to go to war with Saddam and fight to the end? Could he win a battle of wills with Saddam, face down a furious Arab world and overcome the quiet disapproval of most of the NATO allies?

That kind of tangle is not what the President wants to think about in the middle of a sea of subpoenas and lawyers. And other less dramatic but just as demanding problems are out there shrieking for his attention. The deep and threatening financial crisis in Asia is far from over. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned last week that the U.S. economy would feel its impact in the spring.

Last week the Administration began its campaign on Capitol Hill to replenish the coffers of the International Monetary Fund, which were depleted by its $120 billion bailout of Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin went to Congress to request an $18 billion boost for the IMF. Getting it will not be easy, since last year Congress rejected a much smaller request.

And there is the chronic pain of the Middle East peace process. Arab leaders have no love for Saddam but they oppose dropping more bombs on Iraq because from their perspective, Clinton has a double standard. He relentlessly pursues Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction while saying nothing about the atom bombs everyone assumes Israel has stashed in its basement. The Arabs believe Clinton is less likely now than ever to buck Congress and his own party by browbeating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a deal.

Clinton’s foreign challenges are both dangerous and long-term. He may be able to fix his famous laserlike concentration on them now, but the longer he has to spend his time defending his integrity, the less focus and authority he will keep. He was already having trouble abroad because, with the cold war over, even old allies have other fish to fry. Netanyahu refuses to be persuaded. Canada wants to do business with Cuba. France and Russia are rushing to invest in Iran. Government leaders in Malaysia and Singapore proclaim the superiority of “Asian values.” Now the entropy can only get worse. Clinton’s crisis will strengthen the resolve of those who resent American leadership and rattle the confidence of those who rely on it.

–Reported by William Dowell/U. N. and J.F.O. McAllister, Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington

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