The Magazine


Mar 2, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 24 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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GOD, I HOPE HE'S LYING. In the Lewinsky affair, the mantra of President Clinton's defenders is, "I hope he's telling the truth." Regarding Iraq, however, the only hope for the country is that the president is not telling the truth about his avowed goals.

Those avowed goals have now been whittled down to merely "diminishing" Saddam's stock of weapons of mass destruction. As a goal for a major military strike, this makes absolutely no sense. By their very nature, weapons of mass destruction are deadly in even the smallest quantities. As the secretary of defense himself pointed out in a dramatic little television show-and-tell last November, a five-pound bag of anthrax is enough to destroy half the population of Washington, D.C. After Saddam's arsenal has been "diminished," he will still have enough five-pound bags to kill all the people he could ever want to.

Which is why the only hope for the coming war is that the president is deliberately misstating American goals. The only air campaign worth doing, and the only one worth supporting, is a massive, continuous, relentless air assault aimed not at weapons of mass destruction (which are hard to find and easy to hide) but at the pillars of Saddam's power, the visible, findable, political and military resources that keep his people prostrate and in thrall: the secret police, the republican guards, the army, the presidential palaces.

Such a campaign may not succeed, but it is the only one that has a plausible rationale and at least a chance of success. Anything short of that simply guarantees -- rather than merely risks -- Saddam's coming out the winner.

Why might the president be lying? Three possible reasons. He might be thinking that the larger objective is less likely to earn the support either of the American people or of allies abroad. (This is a miscalculation. Both the American people and Saddam's neighbors, like the Saudis, are far more likely to support a serious air campaign aimed at toppling Saddam than pin- pricks that will only ensure his reemergence.)

Another possible motive is to provide a convenient exit strategy. Aim low so that if the actual aim -- destroying his power base -- proves unachievable, Clinton can stop the war, declare victory, and go home.

Most troubling is a third possibility: Clinton may feel that he has to announce modest goals because he simply lacks the moral authority to order the kind of major military action that a Truman or a Bush could order.

This recognition of diminished stature was on startling display during the president's address at the Pentagon last Tuesday. This was no eye-to-eye Oval Office address. (The Oval Office has been the subject of decidedly non- presidential speculation lately.) Aware that both his lack of military experience and his personal scandals impair Clinton's authority to order men and women into battle, the White House orchestrated a most curious, indeed unprecedented, cheerleading session as the lead-in to the president' speech.

It is best described as a pyramidal Pentagon suckup. First, the highest military officer in the land (the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff) introduces, campaign style, his civilian boss, the secretary of defense. (Applause.) He, in turn, goes up to the podium and gives another rah-rah about his under-boss, the vice president of the United States, Al Gore. (Applause.) Who in turn thanks everyone in the room, campaign style, down to the secretary of transportation and the deputy secretary of defense -- the cleaning crew at the Pentagon was left out for standing so steadfastly in these times of trial. He then gives us, rousingly as always, the president of the United States. (More applause.)

It's as if the highest levels of the military-civilian leadership in the nation had gathered together to tell us: "You really must listen to this man. He is, despite appearances, your commander-in-chief."

A major source of the utter confusion and dismay that the good people of Ohio feel about the coming conflict is doubt about the seriousness of the man and the seriousness of his war aims. Clinton thinks that ginning up the country for a war is no different from ginning it up for what he considers the moral equivalent of war -- his specialty, campaigning. Hence the choice of an Oprah-style town meeting. Aw-shucks, lip-biting, ultra-glib, town-hall schmoozing succeeded in 1992 and 1996. Why not turn his top aides loose on the people in similar fashion in 1998 to rally them to war?