After Monica

Edward Luttwak

At the beginning of 1997, when Bill Clinton had just defeated Bob Dole, and his pursuer Kenneth Starr was visibly failing to pierce the Arkansas omertà – two of the Clintons’ companions in sordid deals sat silently in prison rather than testify – the annual State of the Union speech offered the perfect opportunity to reassert the full authority of a twice-elected President.

In the 1994 Congressional elections, the Republicans had won a majority in both Houses for the first time in decades. In 1996, however, the electors, fearful of a further shift to the right under an all-Republican Government, rejected Bob Dole, giving Clinton a second opportunity to invest his Presidency with meaning. That is exactly what previous Presidents had done in their own post-election State of the Union speeches – take Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ or Reagan’s promise to ‘abolish nuclear weapons’. Not Clinton. Surprising everyone, he offered no grand project, did not claim a mandate for even medium-sized reforms, made no attempt to restart the healthcare debate and failed to preach on any subject at all, even race relations. Instead, he read out a long list of specific programmes, each calculated to appeal to a specific segment of the electorate: taxpaying families with young children, bankable students in higher education, taxpaying handicapped persons, old people with significant capital and long-term care costs. Clinton’s implicit message was that his moral authority, his personal character, did not matter: do not judge me, judge my programmes, they are good for you, no matter what hanky-panky I may be up to. The 1997 speech contained his brief for the defence long before Monica Lewinsky was in the news.

The majority of the members of the US Congress are not easily shocked, but some Democrats and many Republicans depend for their re-election on Christian fundamentalists, a minority in most constituencies but highly organised and very active at election time. They are the ones who compel the Republican majority to oppose abortion, and who disagree with the (diminishing) majority of Americans who still support Clinton because they like his ‘policies’, in particular the happy state of the American economy.

For a time, there seemed to be a way out for Republican leaders in Congress eager to keep a politically paralysed Clinton in the White House without antagonising their most active supporters: fundamentalists believe in redemption through public confession and ‘finding Jesus’. That is why, before the disastrous speech of 17 August, Republicans begged Clinton to apologise with as much visible remorse as he could muster, preferably bursting into tears. It might have been embarrassing, but it would have made it much easier for them to go on studying the Starr report until the last day of the Clinton Presidency.

It was not to be. Having consulted both his political advisers and his lawyers, Clinton evidently decided to listen to neither. Instead, Clinton the President chose to follow the advice of Clinton the lawyer who has never practised, rather than Clinton the superbly talented politician – and everyone knows that a man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client. Only the most subtle legal trickery can be passed off in a nation of lawyers: Clinton’s was downright primitive, and each one of his evasions was exposed in the next day’s editorials and television commentary. Far from being remorseful, moreover, Clinton was visibly angry that he had to defend himself at all, compounding the effect by devoting almost half his talk to a sustained attack on Starr – the one thing that both his lawyers and most of his White House intimates had insisted he must not do (it has been reported that the dissenter among the intimates was Hillary Clinton, always pugnacious, not always wise). The overall result, aside from the harshest possible media reactions – the New York Times editorialists virtually demanded Clinton’s resignation – was to ensure that the scandal would continue after the briefest possible interruption for the Cruise missile extravaganza.

The attacks on the Afghan camps and the Khartoum factory were certainly Monica-related but it is worth pinning down the extent of that relation. Even if Lewinsky was the motivating factor, she affected only the timing of the attacks: both the weapons and the targets were ready long before the bombs exploded in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. By now everyone knows that US Intelligence cannot identify and locate individuals such as Osama Bin Ladin – or, for that matter, the far more visible Saddam Hussein. But while the CIA’s espionage capability is persistently disappointing, the global satellite coverage of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) continues to improve. Anyone who has a scanner attached to his personal computer knows why: each refinement in image-processing software allows more data to be extracted from the same overhead photographs. To identify a camp where weapons and explosives are being used in training, or a suspected chemical plant in Khartoum, is easy for the NRO’s analysts. To connect them with Osama Bin Ladin requires more specific Intelligence that only humans can provide – defectors, prisoners, agents or other people’s spies. Interested foreign governments were obviously helpful. It is no secret that Pakistan has special access to neighbouring Afghanistan, as Egypt has to Sudan. Already some years ago there were indications that Iraq had sent both chemical-warfare equipment and technicians to Sudan, to evade UN inspectors.

You are not logged in