[Classic: November 18, 1997] — There is no popular demand for war with Iraq or anyone else, and President Clinton knows it.
The pressure for war is coming from the usual quarters: those who, for various reasons, want the United States to dominate the Middle East.
The op-ed hawks are framing the issue as whether Clinton has the
“character” (read: guts) to bomb Iraq. If there is one issue where he is
vulnerable, it’s character. He is easy to caricature as a draft-dodging
hedonist who lacks principle and courage. And the caricature requires
only slight exaggeration. Clinton is no saint, and the kind of saint he least resembles is a martyr.
As a young man, Clinton saw Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon
devoured by a long, futile, unpopular war. That was Lesson One.
Lesson Two came later. As a presidential candidate in 1992, Clinton
faced a president who had just waged war on Iraq. It was the opposite
of Vietnam: a short, popular war that cost few American lives
and ended in overwhelming victory. During the campaign Clinton
himself was widely derided for his evasion of military service and for
his subsequent lies about it. Yet he won, and George Bush, a decorated war hero, lost.
The pressure for war is coming from the usual quarters: those who,
for various reasons, want the United States to dominate the Middle East.
What Clinton learned from his own election was that even a successful
war president can’t count on reelection. At one point the polls
had shown public support for the Gulf War at over 90 per cent. Yet that
support didn’t translate into electability for the commander in chief the following year.
The elites within the Beltway are eager for war.
So the lesson of Iraq was added to the lesson of Vietnam. What
people will endorse passively is not the same thing as what they want
passionately. Some of the op-ed warriors praised Bush for showing
“leadership” in going ahead of the polls at an earlier phase, when
those polls had shown most Americans reluctant to step up hostilities.
Though the later polls swung in his favor, Bush’s support was shallow.
His political fate proved that 90 per cent verbal approval isn’t the same thing as 90 per cent enthusiasm.
From Clinton’s point of view, Nixon’s fate is the worst-case scenario
and Bush’s is the best he could hope for. Furthermore, Bush was
lucky. Nothing went wrong in his war, and he had enough sense to quit
while he was ahead without toppling Saddam Hussein and trying to
occupy Iraq, as some hawks had urged.
Right now the elites within the Beltway are eager for war. The cries
for “action” against Iraq are deafening. Just this past weekend various
talk-show panelists, liberal and conservative alike, called for everything
from “carpet bombing” (Nina Totenberg of National Public
Radio) to “ground troops” (William Kristol of The Weekly Standard).
Leaders of both parties in Congress want Clinton to act — i.e., attack.
Yet there is no grassroots pressure for war. Most Americans don’t
see their own welfare threatened by Saddam Hussein, however they
may despise him. The European allies of the United States — more
precisely, the ruling elites of Europe — don’t want war either; they
dread the hostility of the Arab masses and the wider Muslim world.
How many enemies do we want? We have the power to make an unlimited number, provoking
terrorist retaliation in the short run and who knows what in years to come. And to what end? American military domination of the globe? Why is
that desirable? What could it cost us?
And they may be thinking that if Iraq is crippled, Iran will become
the dominant power in the Middle East - in which case many of the
same American voices who are demanding war with Iraq now will
demand war with Iran later. Some of them have already named Iran as our chief enemy.
As with Vietnam, the hawks are making it as awkward as possible for a president
to behave with discretion and restraint. They threaten him with charges of cowardice if he retreats, while offering redemption if he attacks.
How many enemies do we want? We have the power to make an
unlimited number, provoking terrorist retaliation in the short run and
who knows what in years to come. And to what end? American military
domination of the globe? Why is that desirable? What could it cost us?
As with Vietnam, the hawks are making it as awkward as possible
for a president to behave with discretion and restraint. They threaten
him with charges of cowardice if he retreats, while offering redemption if he attacks.
The real question is whether Clinton will have the guts to endure
being called a coward by people whose courage is measured by their
willingness to send others to die.
Copyright © 2016 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.
“Clinton's Gut Issue” by Joe Sobran was published originally by Universal Press Syndicate on November 18, 1997.
This is one of 82 essays in Joe Sobran’s collection of his writing on the President Clinton years, titled Hustler: The Clinton Legacy. FGF Books is hoping to publish the second edition of this book shortly.
Joe Sobran (1946-2010), an author, journalist, and speaker, was a syndicated columnist for over 35 years.
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