Leading Article: War and humbug

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN THE more than 200 years since the American republic was founded, only two presidents have been impeached, and it would be absurd to say that William Jefferson Clinton was one of the worst men men ever to hold that office. He is most of what his detractors say he is: a shallow, fawning mountebank, and a man whose serial adultery might be overlooked more easily but for his serial mendacity, not to say his grotesque casuistry. Worse than his taste for effortless and transient sexual encounters is his taste for legalistic hair-splitting. History will surely judge him less harshly as the man who left a stain on Monica's dress than the man who stained the English language by saying that "It depends what the meaning of 'is' is".

Still, sexual licence, untruthfulness or abuse of language are not in themselves a reason for removing a head of state from office. Almost no one has emerged with much credit from the past year in Washington. It would be hard to say which is the most displeasing quality of President Clinton's Republican foes, their partisanship, their vindictiveness, their lack of sense of proportion, or their sheer humbug. The party of Lincoln and Eisenhower seems to have been possessed by a zeal which is less "republican" or "conservative" than Maoist. These people will not be happy until they have inflicted ritual humiliation on Clinton in the spirit of the Cultural Revolution.

The Republicans know perfectly well that adultery is not a disqualification from office, nor yet failing to be candid about sex; otherwise where would many of them be, including Henry Hyde, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee? Like the Speaker-elect, Bob Livingston, who resigned yesterday, he has "outed" himself as an adulterer, but as yet retains his appointment. In the end, as the witty Maureen Dowd of the New York Times has said, the President's private conduct isn't grounds for impeachment, it's grounds for divorce.

And yet, even if we think that Clinton should be legally unimpeachable, he remains indefensible. The curious thing is that he is indefensible precisely in the terms of those who would wish to defend him. We are told that African-Americans continue to admire Mr Clinton - a man whose first conspicuous act on the national stage was to return to his own state of Arkansas so that, for reasons of electoral advantage, he could be present in person when a brain-damaged black man was put to death. We are told that American women, and even self-styled feminists, also support Mr Clinton - a man whose well-documented treatment of women as sex objects is just what the women's movement has denounced for a generation past.

We are told that the President still enjoys the support of the liberal- left. But this is the most grotesque misprision of all. If the left has had a broad message for the past century - and a broad justification - it has been its opposition to war in general, and in particular to bullying wars waged by the strong against the weak. In Washington, not only Republicans but also liberals, who might be expected to oppose war-mongering, have rallied to him this week, saying that his motives in bombing Baghdad must not be impugned.

Look at it less charitably. In August Clinton destroyed an innocent pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, and killed innocent people, both as a petty act of revenge and a blatant and unmistakable attempt to distract attention from his domestic difficulties. After that, no one can ever be blamed for questioning his motives again when he sends the bombers in.

The arguments used to justify this rain of death and destruction on Iraq curiously bear similarity to the Republicans' arguments for impeaching Clinton, mutatis mutandis: they are true but irrelevant, humbug dressed up as principle. Even the soppiest leftist knows that Saddam Hussein is a murderous tyrant, but the world is full of such men, and we do not expect to devastate the cities they rule. He has flouted United Nations resolutions, but so has Israel. He has secretly engaged in manufac- turing weapons of mass destruction, but so have several other countries. It is dispiriting enough that, in a United States bitterly divided over the Clinton case, the one thing which seems to unite the American people is an enthusiasm for incinerating Iraqis. For us, it is far more dispiriting that Tony Blair should prove such an uncritical and servile supporter of the President.

Both the President and Prime Minister are ostentatiously pious Christians: the one baring his soul at prayer breakfasts and confessing his woes, if not his sins, to the Rev Jesse Jackson, the other worshipping indiscriminately at Catholic as well as Anglican churches. Leave aside the month of Ramadan, they have chosen a strange way to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. Both Blair and Clinton have degraded language with their talk of "degrading" Iraqi facilities; do not these bombs and missiles degrade the meaning of "Christian civilisation"?