Welcome to Wag the Dog Three

Julia Reed
Saturday 10 April 1999 23:02

In the days after Bill Clinton authorised military strikes against Serbia at least a dozen newspapers featured cartoons that were variations on the same theme: the President holding a sign that read, "Ask me about Monica". The implication, of course, is that the air campaign against Yugoslavia has been such a mess that Clinton would prefer to talk about his sexual escapades and resulting impeachment.

It is true that Clinton no longer minds talking about the Monica mess. But the cartoonists have got it wrong. The crisis in Kosovo is precisely what has enabled him to move on, and he is happy to talk about it. He is free to use terms like moral revulsion and moral leadership, and the public, moved by photographs of thousands of wretched refugees and the sinister image of Slobodan Milosevic, is happy to let the irony slip. The latest poll shows that 58 per cent of Americans favour the air strikes; a slightly more deluded 57 per cent agree that "the conflict in Kosovo is going well".

Meanwhile, the President gets to give speeches at military bases, pose in front of bombers and point to the children of servicemen, telling the camera that "we are doing this for them". A fawning piece in the New York Times confirms that he "now wears the mantle of Commander-in-Chief more comfortably than he did in mid-1993" after the first missile attack he ordered on Baghdad killed a handful of civilians.

Presumably he is more comfortable because the antiseptic air war guarantees casualties will be kept to a minimum. But when they do come up, we are assured by an aide that the new, more confident Commander-in-Chief has developed "a switch" which allows him to turn off his concern for the lives of civilians and American troops, the fate of whom once "haunted" him.

The word "switch" was perhaps not the best choice. In 1992, when Clinton was confronted with his first crisis as a candidate - the twin debacles of Gennifer Flowers and the Vietnam draft dodge - he also used a "switch" to diffuse it. Trailing badly in the all-important New Hampshire primary, he flew home to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. Rector had shot a police officer and turned the gun on himself, emptying his head of the majority of his brain. At his last meal, he had so little idea of what was happening to him that he asked to save his pecan pie for later. The governor of a state rarely attends an execution and certainly doesn't need to be in residence for one to take place. But Clinton needed to come off as a courageous chief law enforcement officer. It worked. Ricky Ray's demise helped save his campaign.

Ever since, when in trouble, the President has used force (or so many cruise missiles that we're about to run out of them). Some cynics refer to this latest round in Kosovo as Wag the Dog Three. One was the bombing of a Sudanese drugstore to save the world from the demon Bin Laden just prior to Monica Lewinsky's testimony before the grand jury. Two was the missile attack on Iraq just prior to the impeachment vote. Three, critics say, has the double appeal of eradicating Monica from the public mind and of putting the fact that the Chinese have stolen our nuclear secrets on the back pages.

I think the latter is a happy coincidence for Clinton, but one can never be sure. Apparently China not only stole plans for our most advanced nuclear warhead in the 1980s, but also data that enabled them to perfect a neutron bomb as late as 1995. Clinton had earlier declared that no secrets had been stolen since he'd been in office, or at least "no one has said anything to me about any espionage". His National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, reportedly knew about the missing neutron bomb data as early as 1996, but failed to mention it to the President until a year later and, even then, may not have detailed "every allegation".

Perhaps Berger did not want to add to the highly charged atmosphere in which Clinton's foreign policy is conducted. Not only do events in the President's personal life inform his decisions, but forces as seemingly benign as the weather can also affect the fate of nations. Berger's predecessor, Anthony Lake, explained in his memoirs how the administration reached the decision to allow the Czech Republic into Nato. Lake wrote that the plea from the Czech president, Vaclav Havel, had been particularly moving, and that after Havel had left the White House it had begun to rain. The President and his team all gazed upon the raindrops streaming down the window panes in the West Wing, when suddenly they turned to each other and said, "Let's let them in". God help us if the tornadoes currently ripping apart the Mid-West suddenly hit Washington.

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