How Bombing Iraq May Deepen The Divide In Washington

Whenever Bill Clinton really needs Saddam Hussein, he always comes through. It happened again on Dec. 16, when the President launched Operation Desert Fox, ordering air strikes on Iraq on the eve of a momentous House vote to seek his removal from office. Short term, Saddam has likely reinforced Americans' support for their commander-in-chief. But eventually, the showdown could entail substantial costs for Clinton both at home and abroad.

Military action will boost Clinton's high approval ratings. Americans rally behind the President at times of crisis. And bold action reinforces the feeling among most voters that the scandal dogging Clinton doesn't justify impeachment. Even before the latest Iraq blowup, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that 68% of Americans believe Clinton is a strong leader, while 66% approve his handling of foreign policy.

What's different this time is that many Republicans aren't buying it. Normally, a President's opponents close ranks behind him in war. Yet, some senior Republicans are furious at Clinton's decision to strike a day before the impeachment debate was set to begin. "Both the timing and the policy are subject to question," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who in the past has advocated harsh measures against Saddam. He pointedly refused to back Clinton. And House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said doubt about the timing "is itself a powerful argument for impeachment."

WIDENING MISTRUST. That breach could be telling in the future. Since World War II, politicians have agreed that partisanship should stop at the water's edge. The impeachment process had already scotched all hope of consensus on domestic policy next year. Now, partisan rifts may destroy 50 years of bipartisanship in foreign affairs. "He's doing it to avoid impeachment," fumes Representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.). "Once again, President Clinton is using American troops to deflect attention from his record of lies, distortions, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power."

The mistrust will haunt Clinton, if, as expected, he survives impeachment. From trade liberalization to Social Security, the GOP will question his motives. And the cynicism won't be confined to Washington. Already, Clinton is struggling to hold together the fragile U.N. coalition on sanctions. The joint decision by Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to attack Iraq without the clear provocation Saddam gave in October intensifies opposition to the U.S. hard line. "This increases the politicization of the issue" when the Security Council discusses the sanctions, says Patrick Clawson, research director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

France and Russia immediately blasted U.N. chief-weapons inspector Richard Butler's latest report--cited by Clinton as justification for the attack--as distorted and exaggerated. And some nations are whispering that U.S. influence weighed heavily on Butler's report on Iraq's lack of cooperation.

While some diplomats may be outraged, they can no longer dismiss U.S. threats as pure bluster. And U.S. voters will be turned off by the GOP's vitriolic behavior when U.S. troops are in harm's way. "Most Americans will support the decisions of our defense leaders....Saddam must go," warns Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)

In a sense, there is a new casualty in the nation's impeachment nightmare: Partisan cynicism with Clinton now runs so high that even when they get the hard-edged anti-Saddam policy they have been clamoring for, his GOP foes doubt his timing, resolve, and motives.