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MOST DANGEROUS PRESIDENCY Weapons of Mass Distraction By: Christopher Hitchens
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, March 22, 1999


THIS IS AN ESSAY ABOUT CANINES. It concerns, first, the President of the United States and commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces, whose character was once memorably caught by a commentator in his native Arkansas who called him "a hard dog to keep on the porch." It concerns, second, the dog or dogs which did not bark in the nighttime. (In the Sherlock Holmes tale Silver Blaze, the failure of such a beast to give tongue—you should pardon the expression—was the giveaway that exposed his master as the intruder.) And it concerns, third, the most famous dog of 1998: the dog that was wagged by its own tail. Finally, it concerns the dogs of war, and the circumstances of their unleashing.

Not once but three times last year, Bill Clinton ordered the use of cruise missiles against remote and unpopular countries. On each occasion, the dispatch of the missiles coincided with bad moments in the calendar of his long and unsuccessful struggle to avoid impeachment. Just before the Lewinsky affair became public in January 1998, there was a New York prescreening party for Barry Levinson's movie Wag the Dog, written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet. By depicting a phony president starting a phony war in order to distract attention from his filthy lunge at a beret-wearing cupcake, this film became the political and celluloid equivalent of a Clintonian roman à clef. Thrown by Jane Rosenthal and Robert DeNiro, whose Tribeca Productions produced the movie, the party featured Dick Morris and an especially pleased and excited Richard Butler, who was described by an eyewitness as "glistening." Mr. Morris is Mr. Clinton's fabled and unscrupulous adviser on matters of public opinion. Mr. Butler is the supervisor of United Nations efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein's despotism. In February 1998, faced with a threatened bombing attack that never came, Iraqi state TV prophylactically played a pirated copy of Wag the Dog in prime time. By Christmastime 1998, Washington police officers were giving the shove to demonstrators outside the White House who protested the December 16-19 bombing of Iraq with chants of "Killing children's what they teach—that's the crime they should impeach" and a "No blood for blow jobs" placard.

Is it possible—is it even thinkable—that these factors are in any way related? "In order that he might rob a neighbor whom he had promised to defend," wrote Macaulay in, 1846 of Frederick the Great, "black men fought on the coast of Coromandel, and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America." Did, then, a dirtied blue dress from the Gap cause widows and orphans to set up grieving howls in the passes of Afghanistan, the outer precincts of Khartoum, and the wastes of Mesopotamia? Is there only a Hollywood link between Clinton's carnality and Clinton's carnage? Was our culture hit by weapons of mass distraction? Let us begin with the best-studied case, which is Khartoum.

On August 20, 1998, the night of Monica Lewinsky's return to the grand jury and just three days after his dismal and self-pitying non-apology had "bombed" on prime-time TV, Clinton personally ordered missile strikes against the El Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries Co. on the outskirts of Sudan's capital city. The Clinton Administration made three allegations about the El Shifa plant:

That it did not make, as it claimed, medicines and veterinary products.

That it did use the chemical EMPTA (Oethyl methylphosphonothioic acid), which is a "precursor," or building block, in the manufacture of VX nerve gas.

That it was financed by Osama bin Laden, the sinister and fanatical Saudi entrepreneur wanted in connection with lethal attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa—or by his shadowy business empire.

These three claims evaporated with astonishing speed. It was conceded within days, by Defense Secretary William Cohen, that the factory did make medicines, vials of which were filmed as they lay in the rubble. It was further conceded that there was no "direct" financial connection between the plant and bin Laden's holdings. Later came the humbling admission that a local CIA informer in Sudan had been fired for the fabrication of evidence. Later still came the even more humbling refusal to produce the "soil sample," taken from outside the factory, which the Clinton Administration claimed contained traces Of EMPTA. In the end, the United States was placed in the agonizing position, at the United Nations, of opposing a call for on-site inspection that had been put forward by the Sudanese.

Bad enough, you might think. But this was only the beginning. The British engineer who was technical manager at the time of El Shifa's construction, Mr. Tom Carnaffin, came forward to say that it contained no space for clandestine procedures or experiments. The German ambassador to Khartoum, Werner Daum, sent a report to Bonn saying that he was familiar with the factory—often used as a showcase for foreign visitors—and that it could not be adapted for lethal purposes. R. J. P. Williams, professor emeritus at Oxford University, who has been called the grandfather of bio-inorganic chemistry, told me that even if the soil sample could be produced it would prove nothing. EMPTA can be used to make nerve gas, just as fertilizer can be used to make explosives, but it is also employed in compounds for dealing with agricultural pests. " ‘Trace elements in adjacent soil are of no use,’ " Williams said. "We must be told where the compound was found, and in what quantity it is known to have been produced. Either the Clinton Administration has something to hide or for some reason is withholding the evidence." It was a rout.

Seeking to reassure people, Clinton made a husky speech on Martha's Vineyard eight days after the attack. He looked the audience in the eye and spoke as follows: "I was here on this island up till 2:30 in the morning, trying to make absolutely sure that at that chemical plant there was no night shift. I believed I had to take the action I did, but I didn't want some person who was a nobody to me—but who may have a family to feed and a life to live and probably had no earthly idea what else was going on there—to die the needlessly"

At the time, I thought it odd that such a great statesman and general could persuade himself, and attempt to persuade others, that the more deadly the factory, the smaller the chance of its having a night watchman. Silly me. I had forgotten the scene in Rob Reiner's movie The American President where a widower Fast Citizen played by Michael Douglas has a manly affair with a woman lobbyist of his own age played by Annette Bening. While trying to impress us with his combination of determination and compassion, this character says, "Somewhere in Libya right now, a janitor is working the night shift at Libyan intelligence headquarters. And he's going about doing his job because he has no idea that in about an hour he's going to die in a massive explosion."

In the event, only one person was killed in the rocketing of Sudan. But many more have died, and will die, because an impoverished country has lost its chief source of medicines and pesticides.

The rout continues. In fact, it becomes a shambles. Let us suppose that everything the Administration alleged about El Shifa was—instead of embarrassingly untrue—absolutely verifiable. The Sudanese regime has diplomatic relations with Washington. Why not give it a warning or notice of, say, one day to open the plant to inspection? A factory making deadly gas cannot be folded like a tent and stealthily moved away. Such a demand, made publicly, would give pause to any regime that sheltered Mr. bin Laden or his assets. (Of course, his best-known holdings have been in Saudi Arabia, but a surprise Clintonian cruise-missile attack on that country, with the princes finding out the news only when they fiddle with the remote and get CNN, seems improbable, to say the least.) It is this question which has led me to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the edge of the Beltway—the non-Monica Ritz-Carlton located within brunching distance of Langley, Virginia—there to meet with Milt Bearden.

Mr. Bearden is one of the Central Intelligence Agency's most decorated ex-officers, having retired in 1994 without any stain from assassination plots, black-bag jobs, or the like. During his long service, he was chief of station in Sudan, where he arranged the famous airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. He also directed the CIA effort in Afghanistan. (His excellent new thriller, The Black Tulip, carries a 1991 photograph of him standing at the Russian end of the Friendship Bridge, across which the Red Army had marched in defeat.) Nobody knows clandestine Sudan and clandestine Afghanistan in the way he does. We speak on background, but after some fine-tuning he agrees to be quoted in exactly these words: "Having spent 30 years in the CIA, being familiar with soil and environmental sampling across a number of countries, I cannot imagine a single sample, collected by third-country nationals and especially by third-country nationals whose country has a common border, serving as a pretext for an act of war against a sovereign state with which we have both diplomatic relations and functioning back channels."

This bald statement contains a lot of toxic material. The local "agents" who collected that discredited soil sample were almost certainly Egyptians, who have a Nilotic interest in keeping Sudan off-balance because, as Bearden pungently says, "their river runs through it." Moreover, when the United States wanted Mr. bin Laden to leave the territory of Sudan, Washington contacted Khartoum and requested his deportation, which followed immediately. (He went to Afghanistan.) When the French government learned that Carlos "the Jackal" was lurking in Sudan, they requested and got his extradition. Business can be done with the Sudanese regime. What, then, was the hurry last August 20? No threat, no demand, no diplomatic d'emarche . . . just a flight of cruise missiles hitting the wrong target. Take away every exploded hypothesis, says Sherlock Holmes—this time in The Adventures of the Beryl Coronet—and the one you are left with, however unlikely, will be true. Take away all the exploded claims about Sudan, and the question "What was the hurry?" practically answers itself.

Can the implication—of lawless and capricious presidential violence—be taken any further? Oh yes, amazingly enough, it can. On more than one occasion, I have argued the case across Washington dinner tables with Philip Bobbitt of the National Security Council. He's a nephew of LBJ's, and he tries to trump me by saying that the US. does possess evidence of nerve-gas production at El Shifa and "human and signals intelligence" about a bin Laden connection to the Sudanese. But this evidence cannot be disclosed without endangering "sources and methods" and the lives of agents.

Bearden has forgotten more about "sources and methods" than most people will ever know, and snorts when I mention this objection. "We don't like to reveal sources and methods, true enough. But we always do so if we have to, or if we are challenged. To justify bombing [Colonel Qaddafi] in 1986, Reagan released the cables we intercepted between Tripoli and the Libyan Embassy in East Berlin. Same with Bush and Iraq. Do you imagine that the current administration is sitting on evidence that would prove it right? It's the dogs that don't bark that you have to listen to." And so my canine theme resumes.

In a slightly noticed article in The New Yorker of October 12, 1998, (almost the only essay in that journal in the course of the entire twelve months which was not a strenuous, knee-padded defense of the President), Seymour Hersh revealed that the four service chiefs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been deliberately kept in the dark about the Sudan and Afghanistan bombings because if they had been consulted they would have argued against them. He further disclosed that Louis Freeh, head of the FBI , was kept out of the loop. Mr. Freeh, who has clashed with Clinton and with Attorney General Janet Reno over the issue of a special prosecutor for campaign finance, was not delighted to hear of the raids. For one thing, he and many of his agents were already in the field in east Africa, somewhat exposed as to their own security, and were in the course of securing important arrests. They would have greatly appreciated what they did not in fact get: adequate warning of a strike that would enrage many neighboring societies and governments. It's now possible to extend the list of senior intelligence personnel who disapproved both of the bombings and of their timing. At the CIA, I gather, both Jack Downing, the deputy director for operations and the chief for the Africa Division, told colleagues in private that they were opposed. It is customarily very hard to get intelligence professionals to murmur dissent about an operation that involves American credibility. However, it is also quite rare for a cruise-missile strike to occur on an apparent whim, against an essentially powerless country, at a time when presidential credibility is a foremost thought in people's minds.

The Afghanistan attack, which took place on the same night as the Sudan fiasco, is more easily disposed of. In that instance, the Clinton Administration announced that Osama bin Laden and his viciously bearded associates were all meeting in one spot, and that there was only one "window" through which to hit them. This claim is unfalsifiable to the same extent that it is unprovable. Grant that, on the run after the embassy bombings, bin Laden and his gang decided it would be smart to forgather in one place, on territory extremely well known to American intelligence.

All that requires explaining is how a shower of cruise missiles did not manage to hit even one of the suspects. The only casualties occurred among regular Pakistani intelligence officers, who were using the "training camps" to equip guerrillas for Kashmir. As a result, indignant Pakistani authorities released two just-arrested suspects in the American Embassy bombings—one Saudi and one Sudanese. (The Saudi citizen, some American sources say, was a crucial figure in the planning for those outrages in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.) Not great, in other words. One might add that a stray cruise missile didn't even hit Afghanistan but fell on Pakistani territory, thus handing the Pakistani military a free sample just months after it had defied Clinton’s feeble appeals to refrain from joining the "nuclear club." All in all, a fine day's work. Pressed to come up with something to show for this expensive farce, the Clintonoids spoke of damage to bin Laden's "infrastructure." Again, to quote Milt Bearden, who knows Afghanistan by moonlight: "What 'infrastructure'? They knocked over a lean-to? If the Administration had anything—anything at all—the high-resolution satellite images would have been released by now." Another non-barking canine, for a president half in and half out of the doghouse.

Speaking of the doghouse, last fall the President's lawyer Bob Bennett gave a speech to the National Press Club in Washington. On a single day—so he informed an open-mouthed audience—he had had four substantial conversations with Clinton about the Paula Jones case and, feeling this excessive, "I had to cut it short and the President said, 'Yeah, I've got to get back to Saddam Hussein,' and I said, 'My God, this is lunacy that I'm taking his time on this stuff.’ " Well, I hope Mr. Bennett didn't charge for that day, or for the other time-wasting day when he naively introduced Lewinsky's false affidavit on Clinton’s behalf. But, if he hoped to persuade his audience that Clinton should be left alone to conduct a well-meditated Iraq policy, his words achieved the opposite effect. Policy toward Baghdad has been without pulse or direction or principle ever since Mr. Clinton took office. As one who spent some horrible days in Halabja, the Kurdish city that was ethnically cleansed by Saddam's chemical bombs, I have followed Washington’s recent maneuvers with great attention. The only moment when this president showed a glimmer of interest in the matter was when his own interests were involved as well.

And thus we come to the embarrassing moment last December when Clinton played field marshal for four days, and destroyed the UN inspection program in order to save it. By November 14, 1998, Saddam. Hussein had exhausted everybody's patience by his limitless arrogance over inspections of weapon sites, and by his capricious treatment of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspectorate. In a rare show of Security Council solidarity, Russia, China, and France withdrew criticism of a punitive strike. The Republican leadership in both houses of Congress, which had criticized the Clinton Administration for inaction, was ready to rock 'n' roll with Iraq. The case had been made, and the warplanes were already in the air when the President called them back. No commander in chief has ever done this before. Various explanations were offered as to why Clinton, and his close political crony Sandy Berger, had made such a wan decision. It was clearly understood that the swing vote had been the President's, and that Madeleine Albright and William Cohen had argued the other way.

But in mid-November the President was still flushed with the slight gain made by his party in the midterm elections. Impeachment seemed a world away, with Republican "moderates" becoming the favorite of headline writers and op-ed performers alike. This theme persisted in the news and in the polls until after the pre-Hanukkah weekend of December 12-13, when, having been rebuffed by Benjamin Netanyahu at a post-Wye visit in Israel, Clinton had to fly home empty-handed. This must have been galling for him, since he had only imposed himself on the original Wye agreement, just before the November elections, as a high-profile/high-risk electoral ploy. (He had carried with him to Tel Aviv, on Air Force One, Rick Lazio and Jon Fox, two Republican congressmen widely hailed as fence-sitters regarding impeachment. So it can't easily be said that he wasn't thinking about the domestic implications of foreign policy.) But by Tuesday, December 15, after Clinton's last-ditch non-apology apology had "bombed" like all its predecessors, every headline had every waverer deciding for impeachment after all. On Wednesday afternoon, the President announced that Saddam Hussein was, shockingly enough, not complying with the UN inspectorate. And the cruise missiles took wing again. Within hours the House Republicans had met and, "furious and fractured," according to the New York Times, had announced the postponement of the impeachment debate, due to begin Thursday morning.

This was not quite like the preceding dramas. For one thing, it could and probably would have happened—unlike Sudan and Afghanistan—at any time. For another thing, the President was careful to say that he had the support of his whole "national-security team," which he wouldn't have been able to say of his cop-out decision in November. Presidents don't normally list the number of their own employees and appointees who agree with them about national-security questions, but then, most presidents don't feel they have to. (Though most presidents have avoided making their Cabinet members back them in public on falsehoods about "private" and "inappropriate" conduct.) Having gone on slightly too long about the endorsements he'd won from his own much-bamboozled team, Clinton was faced with only a few remaining questions. These included:

Why, since Saddam Hussein has been in constant noncompliance, must bombing start tonight?

Why has there been no open consultation with either Congress or the United Nations?

When did you find out about the Richard Butler report on Saddam Hussein's violations?

The last question, apparently a simple one, was the most difficult to answer. It emerged that Clinton had known the contents of the Butler report at least two days before it was supposed to be handed to the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan. It was Kofi Annan's job, furthermore, to present it to the world body for action. Members of the National Security Council in Washington, however, were leaking the report (which "discovered" Saddam Hussein's violations) to friends of mine in Washington by Tuesday, December 15. This timeline simply means that Clinton knew well in advance that he was going to be handed a free pretext in case of need. Mr. Butler might care to explain why he hurriedly withdrew his inspectors without Security Council permission—leaving some 400 United Nations humanitarian aid workers to face the music—at least a day before the bombs began to drop.

Once again the question: What was the rush? It must have meant a lot to Clinton to begin the strikes when he did, because he forfeited the support of the UN, of Russia, of China, of France, and of much of the congressional leadership—all of which he had enjoyed in varying degrees in November. (The Russians, whose volatile stock of "weapons of mass destruction" is far more of a menace than Iraq's, actually withdrew their ambassador from Washington for the first time in history, and threatened again to freeze talks on strategic-arms limitation.)

To the "rush" question, Clinton at first answered that the weekend of December 19-20 marked the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and one would not want to be bombing an Islamic people while they were beginning their devotions. However, the postponed impeachment debate continued well into Saturday, December 19, and so did the bombardment, which concluded a few hours after the impeachment vote itself. Muslim susceptibilities were therefore even more outraged, even in normally friendly countries such as Kuwait, by the suspicious coincidence of timing. During the debate, the House Democratic leadership took the position, openly encouraged by the White House, that a president should not be embarrassed at home while American troops were "in harm’s way" abroad. Again, it is made clear by Clinton’s own conduct and arguments that for him foreign policy and domestic policy do not exist in parallel universes, but are one and the same.

And, again, I found myself talking to someone who is normally more hawkish than I am. Scott Ritter, who served with UNSCOM from 1991 until August of 1998 and who was the chief of its Concealment Investigations Unit, had been warning for months that Saddam Hussein was evading compliance inspections. This warning entailed a further accusation, which was that UNSCOM in general, and Richard Butler in particular, were too much under the day-to-day control of the Clinton Administration. (An Australian career diplomat who, according to some of his colleagues, was relinquished with relief by his masters Down Under, Butler owes his job to Madeleine Albright in the first place.) Thus, when the United States did not want a confrontation with Iraq, over the summer and into the fall, Butler and the leadership acted like pussycats and caused Ritter to resign over their lack of seriousness. But then, when a confrontation was urgently desired in December, the slightest pretext would suffice. And that, Ritter says, is the bitterest irony of all. The December strikes had no real military value, because the provocation was too obviously staged.

"They sent inspectors to the Baath Party HQ in Baghdad in the week before the raids," Ritter told me. "UNSCOM then leaves in a huff, claiming to have been denied access. There was nothing inside that facility anyway. The stuff was moved before they got there. The United States knew there was nothing in that site. And then a few days later, there are reports that cruise missiles hit the Baath Party HQ! It's completely useless. Butler knew that I'd resign if the U.S. continued to jerk UNSCOM around, and he even came to my leaving party and bought me a drink. But now he's utterly lost his objectivity and impartiality, and UNSCOM inspections have been destroyed in the process, and one day he'll be hung out to dry. Ask your colleagues in Washington when they got his report."

From the Washington Post account by Barton Gellman, on Wednesday, December 16, written the day before the bombing began and on the day that Kofi Annan saw the Butler report for the first time:

Butler's conclusions were welcome in Washington, which helped orchestrate the terms of the Australian diplomat's report. Sources in New York and Washington said Clinton Administration officials played a direct role in shaping Butler's text during multiple conversations with him Monday at secure facilities in the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

"Of course," Ritter told me almost conversationally, "though this is Wag the Dog, it isn't t quite like Sudan and Afghanistan in August, which were Wag the Dog pure and simple."

Well, indeed, nothing is exactly like Wag the Dog. In the movie, the whole war is invented and run out of a studio, and nobody actually dies, whereas in Sudan and Afghanistan and Iraq, real corpses were lying about and real blood spilled. You might argue, as Clinton's defenders have argued in my hearing, that if there was such a "conspiracy" it didn't work. To this there are three replies. First, no Clinton apologist can dare, after the victim cult sponsored by both the President and the First Lady, to ridicule the idea of "conspiracy," vast or otherwise. Second, the bombings helped to raise Clinton's poll numbers and to keep them high, and who will say that this is not a permanent White House concern? Third, the subject was temporarily changed from Clinton's thing to Clinton’s face, and doubtless that came as some species of relief. But now we understand what in November was a mystery A much less questionable air strike was canceled because, at that time, Clinton needed to keep an "option" in his breast pocket.

On January 6, two weeks after I spoke to Scott Ritter, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's office angrily announced that, under Richard Butler's leadership, UNSCOM had in effect become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Clinton Administration. The specific disclosure concerned the organization's spying activities, which had not been revealed to the UN. But Ritter's essential point about UNSCOM's and Butler's subservient client role was also underscored.

The staged bombing of Iraq in December was in reality the mother of all pinpricks. It was even explained that nerve-gas sites had not been hit, lest the gas be released.

(Odd that this didn't apply in the case of the El Shifa plant, which is located in a suburb of Khartoum.) The Saddam Hussein regime survived with contemptuous ease, while its civilian hostages suffered yet again. During the prematurely triumphant official briefings from Washington, a new bureaucratic euphemism made its appearance. We were incessantly told that Iraq’s capacities were being "degraded." This is not much of a target to set oneself, and it also leads to facile claims of success, since every bomb that falls has by definition a "degrading" effect on the system or the society. By acting and speaking as he did, not just in August but also in December, Clinton opened himself, and the United States, to a charge of which a serious country cannot afford even to be suspected. The tin pots and yahoos of Khartoum and Kabul and Baghdad are micro-megalomaniacs who think of their banana republics as potential superpowers. It took this president to "degrade" a superpower into a potential banana republic.


Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.


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