Bill wages war abroad - and bombs at home

The American capital has witnessed a week of unprecedented drama, as the first vote on impeachment in more than a century coincided with massive airstrikes in Iraq; WASHINGTON AT WAR
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The Independent Online
Bill Clinton stopped by a meeting of senior staff just after 8am on Wednesday morning. He spoke briefly to the assembled staff, telling them to stay focused in the days ahead, keep their chins up, that kind of thing. The mood was not happy in the White House. A vote on impeaching the President was close, and things looked grim. All week, those Republicans whom Mr Clinton and his staff had considered as possible allies had been appearing on television with remorseless regularity, saying that they would vote against him. The list of 30 or so targets had been crossed off, one by one.

But what the staff did not know was that Mr Clinton had come not from his quarters in the East Wing, but up the staircase from the panelled underground Situation Room in the suite of offices buried under the West Wing. Though not by inclination or habit a morning person, he had been up early, and attended a meeting of his national security advisers where a very different target list was under discussion. While one set of advisers was totting up the Republicans, the other, a few feet away, was plotting strategy towards the Republican Guard.

Once again, Washington was passing through a week of almost hallucinatory events, one that saw the first vote on impeachment in over a century, and massive air strikes in Iraq that shifted Western policy. The television screens split repeatedly between harsh verbal clashes on the floor of the House of Representatives and the vivid flashes of anti-aircraft fire over Baghdad. And it all revolved around this man from Arkansas, who could bring down the most enormous military force imaginable on his enemies on the other side of the world, but could not, apparently, save himself from his political opponents half a mile away, or indeed from himself.

Unlike its parliamentary politics, America's process for delivering military force is rigorously disciplined and timetabled. While the Lincoln Town Cars and Chevy Suburbans were humming away in West Executive Avenue, awaiting the military and intelligence advisers who were gathered in the Situation Room, the military preparations were all but complete.

President Clinton had been told that he had to decide by 8.00 that morning if he was to go ahead with the operation that had been under discussion since November. The last time, when the aircraft were called back while in the air, when the missiles were halted 15 minutes before launch, there was angry criticism from his political opponents for his failure to deliver.

This time, the White House knew, there would be even worse invective, but with a very different meaning. He would be accused of launching a war to save his own skin, of repeating once more the plot of Wag the Dog, the brilliant on-note comedy that portrayed a White House intent on creating a war in Albania to divert attention from a sexual scandal. Because by 8am on Wednesday, William Jefferson Clinton was in deep trouble and in most respects, Saddam Hussein was the least of his problems.

CUT TO a few weeks ago. The Congressional elections have turned into a rout; Newt Gingrich, the pugnacious Georgian who led the charge against the White House, has resigned to lick his wounds, and the prospect of impeachment looks further away than ever. Censure, a much lesser option, is on the table. Yet as the days pass, the Republicans regroup, take back the initiative and vote to head for impeachment.

By early December, the President was once more heading for a date with destiny on the floor of the House of Representatives. The support for his position was desperately weak. The White House's links with the Congress in general were bad, and with the Republicans they were poisonous. Mr Clinton had fought a long, bitter battle with the House Republicans for supremacy in Washington. Many harsh words were spoken, much scar tissue accumulated. The President's advisers wanted him to reach out and bring in the "moderates" who might be persuaded to oppose impeachment. Yet they were few and far between, and he seemed unwilling to meet them half-way.

By the time the President stepped out of the helicopter on the White House lawn just after 11.30 on Tuesday night, tired and bleary-eyed after the long flight back from Israel, the prospects looked bleak. All day, they had been declaring against him - a long series of names that would mean nothing were they not precisely the names on the White House list, the men and women they hoped would stick by Clinton: Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Fred Upton from Michigan, John McHugh of New York, Tom Campbell of California, and worst of all, Jack Quinn of New York. Mr Quinn had been against impeachment; now he had changed his mind.

Yet the telephone calls which Mr Clinton started making as soon as he arrived back in Washington were not to plead for support: they were to drop the bombshell that the next day, on the eve of impeachment hearings, he would attack Iraq. Carefully, the White House and the Pentagon briefed senior congressional figures about what was to come.

On Wednesday morning, after just a few hours' sleep, the President joined a meeting of the national security team before briefly meeting his domestic staff. By now, the military plans were unwinding across the world, with ships and aircraft being armed and moved into position. At 1pm, Mr Clinton consulted for a last time with the military, and the final orders were given.

It was another two hours before the point of no return. The first missile was launched at 3.12pm Washington time, 11.12pm local time, from way out in the Gulf, probably from one of the US Navy warships, directed at a target in northern Iraq.

Outside the charmed circle of those who knew what was coming, tension was building up as the day wore on. America had made it clear that it would retaliate for Iraq's refusal to co-operate with the United Nations. But how? And when? Domestic politics carried on regardless, with more and more Republicans stepping away from the President. By early afternoon, it seemed likely that war was at hand. But only when the anti-aircraft fire actually started to crackle and stutter over Baghdad shortly before 5pm Washington time did the tension end.

If the impact on Baghdad was sudden and deadly, the results in Washington were also explosive. Tempers were already running high: now they erupted. Senate majority leader Trent Lott, a hardline conservative, fractured the veneer of bipartisan consensus immediately. "I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time," he said in a statement. "Both the timing and the policy are subject to question." One Republican leader, briefed by the Pentagon before the strikes began, said he would support the attacks only if they started after the impeachment debate.

At the precise moment when the first missiles landed, furious Republicans trooped into a meeting that would last two and a half hours, while they thrashed out their response. Finally, Bob Livingston, House Speaker-elect, emerged to announce - in a balanced and cool fashion that reflected none of the emotional wrangling - that the impeachment debate would be postponed for a day.

The White House argument was that it had planned for strikes weeks ago, back in mid-November when the going had been much firmer under foot in Washington. "Militarily, it was the right decision, the right date, and that decision was made back in November," said General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a briefing. Even as the attacks were called off at that stage, the Pentagon and the White House were assessing when the next test would come. The consensus was that it would be in mid-December, when chief Unscom inspector Richard Butler would report.

After that, the planning had moved steadily ahead. Then, 10 days ago on Friday 11, the White House was given advance warning of what Mr Butler would report. Bill Clinton called Tony Blair in Vienna at the European summit, where Downing Street had installed a secure line in the Prime Minister's suite at the Plaza Hotel so he could take the pre-arranged call. As they discussed the likely conclusions of the Butler report, the two men agreed that if it was as damning as expected, they would have no option but to go ahead with airstrikes.

The National Security Council called the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sunday to notify them that the President would order airstrikes during the week. More discussions took place over secure lines while the President was in Israel. As he flew back, he convened with his national security team once more and gave the order at about 5pm Washington time on Tuesday: US forces should be prepared to execute their orders in 24 hours. "It all boiled down to that, if (Mr Butler) had released the report by the 15th, then the 16th was the day that we should do it in order to achieve tactical surprise," said Gen Shelton.

TACTICAL surprise was certainly what it achieved in Washington, and the response was instant and vehement. "While I approve the action, I think the timing stinks, frankly," said Lawrence Eagleburger, who served as secretary of state during the Bush administration.

"The suspicion some people have about the President's motives in this attack is itself a powerful argument for impeachment," said Dick Armey, the House Chief Whip. "After months of lies, the President has given millions of people around the world reason to doubt that he has sent Americans into battle for the right reasons." Instead of arriving in the Congress on Thursday morning to read the last rites for the President, the Republicans found themselves in a debate on the merits of a war that their Commander- in-Chief had launched just hours previously.

Bomb damage assessment was going on down the road at the Pentagon; on Capitol Hill, they were licking their wounds and regrouping. The arithmetic had not changed, though. President Clinton was still lacking the votes to get himself through the impeachment debate; the proceedings would just start a day later. While the gleeful briefings at the Pentagon reproduced the inevitable fuzzy black and white photographs of the places where men and women had died just hours before, their lives reduced to lines on a map, America was girding itself for an event that few, outside Washington, had wanted.

Sometimes Bill Clinton seemed, to those close to him, to be sleepwalking through all of this, wearily towards his destiny. And there was something deeply numbing about the week, once the surprises were out of the way, something heavy and inevitable. The Republicans pressed on with their campaign, no matter what, just as the aircraft kept rising from their air bases or the USS Eisenhower, out in the Gulf. "There is no fixed end time. We have set very specific targets that we intend to attack and when those missions are completed then the mission will end," said William Cohen, of the airstrikes: but he might just as well have been explaining the strategy of the Republican party.

On Friday, the impeachment debate rolled on, while the bombs fell far away. All day, the cliched images alternated on TV: there was the Congressional chamber, with Democrats and Republicans alike queueing up to talk about their families, the Constitution and the nation; and then there was the Pentagon, drily listing the facilities and the weaponry and the acronyms of destruction. It was either the endless, hair-splitting tedium of the legal experts on one channel or the golly-gee-whiz of the war correspondents watching a city go up in flames on the other. Either the metallic clacking of the Speaker's gavel or the crackle of anti-aircraft fire.

The split screen that had moved between war and politics all week, indeed for much of the year, must have taken its toll on the President. His advisers had been telling the newspapers for days that it was hard to get him to focus on the task in hand, when that task was impeachment. He could have done more, they argued, to rebuild support.

If it was his intention that war should distract attention from his problems, then, in the fevered atmosphere of Washington, it failed. The remorseless, partisan politics of the Congress were harder to change than the military structures of Iraq. As the bombers left their carrier decks and land bases yesterday morning, the House of Representatives was voting to impeach the President. The war went on, but the man who launched it was damaged beyond repair.

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