Are these bombings a cynical stunt by an embattled President?

Americans have been crying out for terrorists to be punished. They will applaud these attacks
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The Independent Culture
IN THE Hollywood movie Wag the Dog, an American president embroiled in scandals back home starts a neat little war abroad as a distraction. He wraps himself in the stars and stripes and reminds the United States and the rest of the world that, flawed he may be, but it is his finger on the buttons that could incinerate us all. Patriotism proves the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Now fast forward to real life. An American president embroiled in a domestic scandal orders the most powerful military machine in history to attack what he says are terrorist bases or facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan. This happens on the very day the woman at the centre of his sex scandal is appearing yet again before a Grand Jury. Is this Washington political life emulating Hollywood art? And will a sceptical America, which knew Bill Clinton was lying to them over the Lewinsky affair, assume it to be an outrageous and cynical stunt by the devious president his enemies call "Slick Willie"?

I doubt it. The bombings and murder of American personnel in Kenya and Tanzania were no Hollywood screenplay. America's dead are all too real, and so is American anger at being the target for Islamic fundamentalism. And there is a sense of a real and present danger, threatening American interests and lives as the vultures circle over what they hope might be the carcass of the Clinton presidency.

Saddam Hussein is one American enemy who clearly scents Bill Clinton's weakness. Yesterday, Iraq promised no further cooperation with the United Nations Security Council over weapons inspections, and linked American "lies" about Iraq to "lies" about Monica Lewinsky. "The American authorities appear to have become professional liars," an official Iraqi statement said. "The proof being the admission by their president that he lied to his people."

The newspaper owned by Saddam Hussein's son Uday, Babel, put the politics more bluntly: "How will Clinton direct US foreign policy after this scandal? ... Will he be even more aggressive towards Iraq to please the Republicans in Congress in the hope that it will stop their efforts to get rid of him?"

The Iraqis are right about one thing. On Capitol Hill, Republican politicians have been deeply concerned by the foreign policy implications of the Lewinsky scandal. Look around the world from Washington and you see enough to make Congressmen and State Department diplomats lose a lot of sleep. Japan is feeble, the Asian Tigers are volatile, there is the possibility of a world economic slump, plus a sick Boris Yeltsin leading a sick Russia - and those are just America's difficult friends.

When you get to the awkward squad it looks even worse. There is the prospect of the collapse of the Middle East peace process, the continuing defiance by Saddam Hussein, the failure to punish the bombers of the US barracks in Saudi Arabia and the well financed attacks on Americans in Africa, plus the prospect of more terrorism in Pakistan and elsewhere.

When members of Congress think of a demoralised Clinton administration they shudder at the prospect of the only superpower becoming a pitiful helpless giant at the mercy of determined Lilliputian enemies. They know it is difficult for any American president to be strong abroad if he is weak at home. But even those politicians extremely hostile to the Clinton administration and disgusted by his conduct in the Lewinsky affair continue to repeat the old political cliche: American domestic politics must stop at the water's edge.

I asked a number of Republican Congressmen immediately after the Lewinsky scandal broke, whether they were concerned about the Wag the Dog scenario, that Bill Clinton would bomb the nearest convenient enemy - at that time probably Iraq - to turn attention away from the bedroom farce in the White House. Every member of Congress said they were worried about exactly the opposite - that in a dangerous world Clinton would be so distracted he would not spend enough time concentrating on foreign policy. More importantly, they feared he might become scared to take military action for fear it would look to voters like a cynical political ploy.

Americans have been crying out for those terrorists who take American lives to be punished ruthlessly. While they may be suspicious about the timing of the attacks, most will applaud the fact that they have taken place. Any president, whatever his politics or personal problems, would have done what Bill Clinton has done.

Defence Secretary William Cohen says "the only motivation" for the military strikes was the protection of the American people, and dismisses suggestions they were intended to counter the Lewinsky affair. Cohen is a former Republican Senator with a reputation as a straight arrow. He would have resigned rather than risk American servicemen's lives to polish up the reputation of a tarnished president.

Besides, Bill Clinton does not need to boost his poll ratings. He is not running for re-election, and polls have shown his personal approval rating is now as high as 71 per cent since his confession of adultery with Monica Lewinsky. Americans may snigger and occasionally despair at the lurid stories leaked from the Starr investigation. The latest is that Mr Clinton may have worn a tie given to him by Ms Lewinsky to send her some kind of signal on the day she first testified to the Grand Jury. But they know this is not Wag the Dog, and Bill Clinton is not a reviled Richard Nixon seeking to curry favour with the electorate. He is an embattled but still astonishingly popular man, sending a variety of important messages by the use of missiles rather than neckwear.

The first message is that the United States is a superpower whose interests and citizens must not be put in jeopardy, or else America will respond with extreme force. This is Clinton's echo of Ronald Reagan' dictum to terrorists that "you can run, but you can't hide". Secondly, Mr Clinton is reminding Congress and the American people that he remains the commander in chief, capable of taking tough decisions. Thirdly, he is telling America's allies that he has not forgotten America's interests and, even if his wedding vows remain shaky, his promises on diplomatic matters will be adhered to. And fourthly he is telling America's enemies that if they think America is without an effective leader then they are wrong, dead wrong.

Americans well understand this. They know this is not foreign policy by focus group, or a dramatic and risky performance by a doomed president. Rather it is an affirmation of an observation made by the former Panamanian dictator, Omar Torrijos, that the United States is like a monkey.

"You can play with the monkey," he once said, "but you can't pull its tail."

Gavin Esler is a presenter of 'BBC News 24' and author of 'The United States of Anger'