[Classic: April 8, 1999] — As he ordered the bombing of Kosovo, Bill Clinton assured the nation that he has been “reading up on the history of that area.” That’s a load off! The great war-time presidents have always realized that before you bomb a country, you should read up on it.
Clinton described the decision as “a moral imperative.” He shouldn’t use the word “moral” without blushing; but then, as we learned last year, he doesn’t blush easily.
With Clinton, there is no such thing as a moral imperative. There is only what’s good for Bill Clinton. And he has never seen any percentage in going to war, except when he has needed a momentary distraction, as he did several times last year.
Clinton’s political style has always been selling and swapping favors — you give to me, and I give to you, as the song goes. That’s normal politics, and though it’s corrupt, it tends to keep a country out of war, which interrupts the peaceful exchange of graft.
On several counts, making war is out of character for Clinton. He saw what Vietnam did to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon; he also saw, and profited directly from the fact, that George Bush’s victorious conduct of the Gulf War didn’t endow him with lasting popularity, though his approval rating had peaked at 92 per cent.
Clinton’s draft evasion and hostility to the military make him an incongruous commander in chief.
Besides, Clinton’s draft evasion and hostility to the military make him an incongruous commander in chief, and he has no feel for military affairs. As a rule he likes to be in complete control, but he has to rely on others’ judgment when he contemplates committing bombers and troops.
So why is he waging war? Has he merely bluffed — and had his bluff called — too often? Have the hawks in his administration worn down his resistance? I doubt such explanations. If he could withstand the pressures of 1998, when more than a hundred newspapers called for his resignation, he can withstand the nagging of Madeleine Albright.
I can only speculate by trying to imagine the world as it appears to Clinton himself. Let’s briefly review his presidency. He entered the White House in 1993 with high hopes. He had a Democratic Congress on his side. His “legacy” was going to be national health care.
But the health care plan flopped, scandals began to erupt, and even his wife lost her halo. In 1994, to everyone’s shock, the Republicans took over both houses of Congress. It looked as if Clinton would be lucky to get reelected in 1996, let alone to bequeath a “legacy”: the Republican Congress wasn’t going to pass any big social program of his.
Clinton won in 1996; but he still couldn’t get 50 per cent of the popular vote, his campaign produced more scandals, and the Republicans kept Congress. He’d proved only that he was a brilliant, devious survivor with no coattails.
His lies, perjuries, subornation, and dirty tricks proved that he had no honor whatsoever. He was impeached, and his private life became the subject of scorn and ridicule such as no previous president had ever had to endure.
This set the stage for the biggest scandal of all. As the Monica story consumed the media, everything Clinton did to save his skin had a cost. His lies, perjuries, subornation, and dirty tricks proved that he had no honor whatsoever. He was impeached, and his private life became the subject of scorn and ridicule such as no previous president had ever had to endure; he’d become a national dirty joke, his dignity annihilated. By the time he was acquitted he was held in almost universal contempt. There are strong rumors that his wife wants a divorce.
Though the Republicans failed to convict him and lost ground in the 1998 elections, they are going to control both houses of Congress for the rest of Clinton’s presidency, and the impeachment brawl has left a residue of bad feelings toward him. So he can forget about big legislative achievements.
In the meantime his sex scandals refuse to go away. Monica is touring the world like Princess Di, basking in her sordid celebrity and reminding everyone of what Clinton would prefer to forget. And Juanita Broaddrick says, very believably, that Clinton raped her in 1978.
If he wants to be remembered for something other than his gross affair with a fat young intern, Clinton is going to have to take a new departure. He may see a war in the Balkans as his last chance to put his stamp on history and to upstage his own troubles. Congress won’t declare war, but it will condone an undeclared war, at least until it goes bad.
This is impossible to prove. But notice that in his televised speech explaining his decision to bomb, Clinton listed Serbian atrocities, with the interesting exception of the mass rape that has been such a horrifying feature of the Yugoslav war for several years. Though everyone else has dwelt on it, Clinton seems not to want to bring up the subject of rape, which might connect his scandals with his war in the public’s mind.
In other words, we may be at war for no better reason than that Clinton has a personal interest in distracting us, and future historians, from the sordid activities that will otherwise define him forever. This interest may even prompt him to escalate the war by sending ground troops if the bombing doesn't achieve its nominal goals, as seems to be the case.
We may be at war for no better reason than that Clinton has a personal interest in distracting us, and future historians, from the sordid activities that will otherwise define him forever.
The major news media assume that Clinton’s scandals are “behind us,” trivialities unrelated to the Balkan war. But those scandals may be intimately related to this war. Would Clinton really sacrifice many lives, at risk of a wider war, to his own hope of a “legacy”? Of course. He might even prefer being remembered for a Vietnam-scale disaster to being identified for all time as Monica’s kinky beau.
Public men always have their private motives, but some of them manage to subordinate their personal interests to their country’s good. This isn’t the way most observers would describe Clinton. Nobody can predict how his life will end, but I think we can rule out hara-kiri.
When Clinton took the oath of office in 1993, an exciting world of possibilities lay open to him, including presiding over “the most ethical administration in our history.” Six years later time and character have taken their toll, and war is one of the few options he has left. He wouldn’t be doing it unless he thought it was good for him.
What will history say of him? Seymour Hersh has written a book about “the dark side” of the Kennedy administration. I doubt that anyone will ever refer to Clinton’s “dark side.” It would be a little like referring to the “dark side” of Stalin: there is no other side that matters.
Copyright © 2016 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.
“Legacy” by Joe Sobran was published originally in The Wanderer newspaper on April 8, 1999..
Joe Sobran (1946-2010), an author, journalist, and speaker, was a syndicated columnist for over 35 years.
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“Legacy” is one of 82 essays in Joe Sobran’s collection of his writing on the President Clinton years, titled Hustler: The Clinton Legacy (Griffin Communications, 2000).
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