Vol. 18 No. 18 · 19 September 1996

The Mother of All Conventions

Edward Luttwak writes about Saddam and Clinton’s re-election campaign

3110 words

Iraq’s three Republican Guard divisions had just reached the 36th parallel when Clinton was told that the architect of his ‘family values’ election campaign, Richard Morris, was about to be exposed in the press as the assiduous client of a call-girl, with whom he had shared White House secrets. It was the worst possible kind of scandal for Clinton, given the past stories of his own extra-marital affairs, now more relevant than ever because of his decidedly puritanical electoral stance. And the scandal came at the very worst time for Clinton: on that Thursday, 29 August, he was preparing to make the big acceptance speech that would close the Chicago Convention, before thousands of Democratic Party delegates, and the tens of millions who would watch it in their homes. Clinton’s media experts were offering ‘pre-speech’ briefings to set the right tone, but all day long TV and radio news throughout the United States was preoccupied with stories about Morris, his call-girl, and Clinton’s unique dependence on his fallen adviser, with whom, apparently, he communicated more often than anyone else, including Hillary. White House claims that Morris was only one of many ‘temporary, part-time, consultants’ were ignored by the media, or simply ridiculed.

The Democrats, of course, had to follow a challenging Republican Convention – brilliantly made for television by Haley Barbour, the Party’s national chairman. The appearance by Nancy Reagan spoke for itself. The elevation of Colin Powell into some sort of co-candidate and the exceptional prominence given to Elizabeth Dole, who made the most of her opportunity by wading into the crowd on the floor to do her husband’s This Is Your Life, broadened the production’s appeal by presenting four stars instead of two. Besides, Dole has the merit of being a poor speaker, and because he is such a poor speaker he looked and sounded deeply sincere, far more so than the always eloquent – too eloquent – Bill Clinton.

Nobody could fail to notice the up-front strategy: a role-reversal exercise that presented the Republicans as the party of blacks (Colin Powell), almost-feminists (an entire squad of assertive, dynamic women politicians) and ‘caring’, even liberal, white males (Jack Kemp). The logic was simple enough. Starting off with Robert Dole, the quintessential tough-guy white male candidate, the wounded veteran (= ‘war hero’ in current parlance), a man’s man of few words, the Convention would have been a total failure if it had unfolded as a celebration of manly virtues. That would only have satisfied the white males and anti-feminist white females who will vote for Dole in any case, while further alienating the semi-feminist females, semi-liberal white males, middle-class blacks and other minorities that the Republicans must attract in substantial numbers to defeat Clinton.

Similarly, having ended the primary season strongly identified with the extreme positions of lower-income ‘New Republican’ activists, who care more about abortion than income tax, the Party was fully recaptured in San Diego by establishment (‘country-club’) Republicans. Not only was tax-cutting given an absolutely central role at the expense of ‘family values’, but the rejection of that entire ideology was underlined by the prime-time featuring of two explicitly ‘pro-choice’ speakers, Colin Powell and Congresswoman Susan Molinari, and by the entire tone of Dole’s acceptance speech, long on tolerance, silent on abortion.

Again, the logic of this strategy of dissociation was quite simple. Of all voters, the New Republicans are the least likely to go over to Clinton, whose ‘flexibility’ cannot possibly extend to embracing their uncompromising positions on abortion, censorship etc. Hence the Party can take the New Republican voters for granted, while appealing to the affluent, including suburban New Democrats, with their zero-deficit-plus-growth package, the miracle cure promised by the Laffer theory, a.k.a. ‘supply-side’ economics. True, many of the affluent of both parties are also well-educated, and few Americans who read newspapers believe in the theory that cutting taxes reduces deficits by prompting an upsurge of work, earnings and tax revenues. But that is only the disposable outer wrapping of the real goodies, the tax cuts themselves, in which the affluent can and do believe.

Both overt strategies had their merits, but neither was as significant as a third: delegitimisation. That was the subtext of the entire Convention, but especially of Dole’s speech: the success or otherwise of Clinton’s policies is simply irrelevant, because Clinton is not entitled to be President. That Clinton’s radiant personality co-exists with an astonishing lack of character (Richard Morris described him as a ‘hollow man’) is an accepted fact, but the strategy of delegitimisation is far more subtle than a mere attack on Clinton’s character, veracity, or his avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War. Actually, the target is not Clinton at all, but the many Americans who view him as unprincipled and untruthful, yet still intend to vote for him because they want this or that Federal programme that a Dole Administration might eliminate or cut back. The implicit message of the Convention was that any American who votes for Clinton for his own selfish reasons is himself lacking in character and integrity. All the noisy goings-on of San Diego provided good camouflage for a strategy that needed to be disguised in order to succeed: people do not react kindly when politicians criticise their moral credentials (Carter never recovered from his ‘malaise’ speech). In any case the approach was highly original: it was meant to shame prospective Clinton supporters into voting for Dole.

In the circumstances – an ingenious Republican performance and a disastrous scandal close to home – Saddam’s latest adventure was a gift from the gods to Clinton. As the world’s number one bad guy, he is the ideal enemy for an American President in trouble. Moreover, the US can attack Iraqi military installations at will with Cruise missiles launched by ships or B52s, without risking any aircraft shot down or the embarrassment of captured pilots in Iraqi hands. Clinton could therefore have seized the opportunity to push aside the Morris scandal to assume his most Presidential role, speaking as Commander-in-Chief and warning Saddam in the strongest terms not to cross the 36th parallel, on penalty of swift and devastating punishment.

But it was not to be. The very specific parameters of Clinton’s re-election strategy, as worked out by Morris of course, exclude any direct role as a war-leader, and with very good reason. So the warning was delivered not by the President but by unnamed officials, who told the press that two B52 bombers were already in flight for Guam; that more aircraft-carriers were moving to the Gulf; and that urgent consultations were underway with America’s allies. None of that impressed Saddam.

Clinton’s extraordinary renunciation of his golden opportunity to transcend the Morris scandal and win popularity at Saddam’s expense is readily explained by the sophisticated three-part strategy he is now pursuing to win the November election. First of all, he is offering himself and Hillary to every government-dependent constituency in America – pensioners, low-income people in general, public-school teachers and other government employees – as well as feminists, homosexuals and all liberals, as their only shield against the budget-cutting, culturally conservative Republican-dominated Congress. Because this role is negative and purely defensive, it has the advantage of making the ‘character issue’ almost irrelevant: even voters who think that Dole is the better man can vote for Clinton not as a national leader, but as the protector of their favourite policies.

In itself, that would of course expose Clinton to the risk of being labelled as a tax-and-spend plus counter-culture liberal, the very image that led to the defeat of his predecessors Carter, Dukakis and Mondale. But the second part of the strategy devised by Morris had a remedy for that. Under his direction, Clinton has taken decidedly right-wing positions on some carefully selected issues, notably crime (he talks non-stop of his plan to pay for 100,000 extra policemen with Federal funds), and ‘welfare reform’. (The abolition of payments to single women with children, a programme openly blamed for having encouraged illegitimacy – and labelled, sotto voce, as a black teenager procreation subsidy – is what is meant by ‘welfare reform’.) Overall, Clinton positions himself just to the right of Dole on every social and ‘moral’ issue, counting on the fact that liberals have no choice but to vote for him.

Moreover, to win over centrist and even (he hopes) traditional Republican voters, Clinton stresses his fiscal conservatism, eagerly claiming for himself the credit for the deficit-reduction of the last four years, which was actually achieved by Congress – a Republican Congress since November 1994. Unlike any previous US politician, Clinton has actually made deficit reduction popular, by linking it in his speeches with the decline in the interest rates that people have to pay on their mortgages or personal loans, then adding that, should Dole be elected, the deficit and interest rates will both go up as taxes go down.

But because Dole’s promise of a general tax reduction is popular, too, Clinton is offering specific tax reductions to specific constituencies ($1500 for student tuition; $500 per child to families; $5000 per adoption etc). Given this electoral stance, Clinton and Morris faced an obvious problem in preparing for the Chicago Convention: most Democratic Party delegates simply are not culturally or fiscally conservative. If the Convention expressed their views, American voters would be confronted with the same ideas that they have rejected in every Presidential election since 1977 (except for the 1992 three-way contest, in which Perot defeated Bush for Clinton).

The first order of business was therefore to camouflage the liberalism of Democratic Party activists. Their two most prominent spokesmen in Chicago, Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson, were successfully persuaded to speak very moderately indeed. Even so, they were denied a prime-time slot. The major TV networks did not broadcast their speeches and very few Americans heard them. Other prominent liberals, such as Edward Kennedy, Barbara Mikulski and Pat Schroeder, were so well submerged they were almost invisible. In marked contrast to the Republicans at San Diego, who gave great prominence to Bush, Ford and Reagan, the Democrats excluded from the programme their one living ex-President, Jimmy Carter, and their three former candidates, McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis, all of them much too liberal for the 1996 edition of Clinton. None of them even came to Chicago.

As for the chosen keynote speaker, Governor Evan Bayh of Indiana, he is an extreme fiscal conservative, more so than many Republican governors, who has cut taxes and virtually abolished welfare programmes in his state. Hillary Clinton could not be denied a prominent role, not only because Elizabeth Dole was the star at San Diego but because the feminist and semi-feminist vote is a key Clinton constituency. But Hillary’s speech – worked out, contrary to most published reports, with Richard Morris – emphasised children and child-rearing and thus her own culturally conservative role as a mother, hardly mentioning any liberal programme, and referring to health-care reform in a single phrase.

Even these precautions – and the star ‘human interest’ turns by Christopher ‘Superman’ Reeve and the semi-paralysed gunshot victim, James Brady – were considered insufficient by Clinton and Morris. With all the media present in Chicago, they feared that the American public would still receive too much information about the delegates, and their mostly very liberal views. Clinton and Morris therefore devised a totally unprecedented diversionary manoeuvre. The nightmare contingency for the organisers of a Party Convention is the sudden international crisis or major natural disaster that draws media attention away from the proceedings, squandering months of preparation and vast expenditure. In 1968, the Democrats suffered that fate in the very worst way, because the fighting between the Chicago police and the anti-Vietnam demonstrators took place right outside the Convention hall, exposing the Party’s deep divisions over the war. But in 1996, it was Clinton himself who deliberately diverted attention from the first three days of the four-day Convention, by taking the slow train to Chicago, issuing a steady stream of policy announcements through five states.

Clinton’s deliberate downgrading of the Democratic Party’s most important gathering conceals a less obvious and much more important divergence of interests between the Party and its candidate. Although Clinton has one important positive ploy, his youth (highly relevant to his promise of ‘preparing America for the 21st century’), his strategy remains fundamentally defensive: if re-elected, he promises to protect ‘the young, the old and the environment’ from the budget-cutting Republican Congress’ – the ‘Newt Gingrich Congress’, as speaker after speaker called it in Chicago. This is a modest agenda, as most commentators noted.

In November, however, Americans will vote for all the seats in the House of Representatives, and one-third of Senate seats. They could elect a Democratic majority in both Houses, perhaps even a crushing majority. The Clinton/Morris strategy assumes that Americans will re-elect a Republican majority in Congress – and Bill Clinton. For if the voters were confident of the Republicans losing control of the House and Senate, they would no longer need Clinton to protect their favourite government programmes. In that very important sense, it is Clinton against the Party. His own re-election strategy weakens every Democratic candidate, simply by assuming a Republican Congressional victory.

Such a conflict of interests was far from obvious to the public that watched the Convention on television, and saw and heard the endless rounds of applause that delayed the start of Clinton’s speech. It was not even obvious to the rank-and-file delegates in the hall. But it is very obvious indeed to Democratic Congressmen seeking re-election, and to new candidates seeking a Congressional seat. They know full well that Clinton’s victory plan is based on the expectation of their collective defeat. Had they realised that in January, Clinton would certainly have been challenged by a more liberal contender in the primary elections. Now it is too late, and Democratic Congressional candidates can only hope that voters who choose Clinton against Dole will surprise everybody by choosing Democratic Congressmen as well.

Meanwhile, Saddam was pressing up beyond the 36th parallel, undeterred by the rather muted warning from the Clinton Administration, i.e. the Clinton campaign, which then reacted all too quickly, though with minimal aggression and a much more punishing extension of the southern ‘no-fly’ zone all the way to the 33rd parallel, only 30 miles from Baghdad. Whatever role the Saudis and Kuwaitis may also have played in these decisions (both are forever ready to repeat to Washington their version of the ‘Arabs understand nothing but force’ species of wisdom), the urgencies of the re-election campaign undoubtedly dictated the timing of the attack.

As a result, there was simply no time for the elaborate diplomatic minuets needed to build a decently broad coalition against Iraq. An authorising resolution from the UN Security Council requires that both the Chinese and the Russians must at least refrain from a veto, but neither could be ‘consulted’, i.e. engaged in the bargaining that eventually defines what pay-offs they will settle for if they are to play along. There was not even enough time to go through the ceremonies of seemingly high-level, earnest dialogue that the French invariably demand. Hence China, France and Russia refused to endorse the US attack, leaving ever-faithful Britain almost alone in the American camp, except for Israel and Kuwait.

Clinton was under pressure to punish Saddam so quickly because he had not done enough to warn him off beforehand. That is what Dole said in the immediate aftermath of the Iraqi incursion, and the accusation could not be dismissed because too many media people knew that he was right: it was via television, after all, that the anonymous, un-Presidential, warning had been relayed, along with very specific information on Iraqi preparations to cross the 36th parallel.

Having decided to attack Iraq, he had to decide how to do it, and there, electoral considerations were not merely influential but dominant. It would not do at all to have aircraft shot down and possibly live pilots captured, especially at the orders of a President who remains a draft-dodger in the eyes of many voters. Only Cruise missiles were to be used, even though the Pentagon, unlike CNN and other media cheerleaders, is fully aware of their acute shortcomings: it takes as many as eight to do as much damage as one fighter-bomber sortie. Cruise missiles, moreover, can only be aimed at fixed targets so that the Iraqi ground forces engaged against the Kurds could not be attacked. The chosen targets for both the initial 27 missiles and the subsequent 17 were therefore radar and other anti-aircraft installations in southern Iraq, well away from Baghdad, and further still from the action north of the 36th parallel. Such an attack could not, in itself, be considered a strong enough response and so the extension of the ‘no-fly’ zone was added to the punishment. In purely military terms, that is a very astute move, because, if fully enforced, it would prohibit the use of most of Iraq’s remaining air bases. In diplomatic terms, however, it is much less clever. By the US adding unilaterally to the original exclusion zone ordered by the Security Council, that zone is itself delegitimised, and is now likely to be reconsidered sooner than would otherwise have been the case. Besides, the use of American military power to restrict another country’s sovereignty over its own territory is exactly the sort of thing that makes many countries fidgety – including China, with its predilection for threatening military manoeuvres against Taiwan.

Thus Clinton now faces an unresolved crisis with Saddam – who declares that he will not respect the new ‘no-fly’ zone – without the broad international support that Bush mobilised during the Gulf War. Certainly he will not have a compliant Security Council ready to endorse US decisions in exchange for the petty cash of diplomacy. Worse still, any and every military confrontation reminds American voters that for all his deficiencies in all other respects, Dole is much more persuasive than Clinton in the Presidential role of Commander-in-Chief and indeed in the broader role of father-leader, in the manner of Eisenhower and Reagan, the only two Presidents re-elected to serve a full term since 1945. Clinton by contrast remains unalterably an errant son – the amiable rogue who pulled it off in the biggest possible way, yet who always remains afraid of being found out, especially when confronted by military matters of any kind. When Americans switched on their TVs to catch the Presidential statement after the missile strike against Iraq, they were startled by the nervous tones and stumbling words of the normally fluent, radiantly confident Bill Clinton.

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