FINALLY, FOR THE FIRST TIME in the six years of his administration, President Clinton took vigorous military action against Iraq. Nonetheless, his December 16 speech to the nation was unclear about both the real objectives of the attack and the level and duration of force that were to be applied. If we had greater confidence in the president's credibility and in his military leadership, we would all be more confident that, in fact, he made the correct decision, rather than just another expedient political maneuver. It is hard to believe that the order to attack, coming from a president whose foreign policy rests on domestic politics, was not calibrated by its consequences for the impeachment process.

The timing of the president's decision to use force against Iraq had no other logic. At three times in just the past 14 months -- October 1997 and February and November 1998 -- President Clinton could have and should have imposed harsh military punishment on Iraq. Nothing in his address to the nation explained why he abjured force on those occasions, but chose to unleash it last week. Indeed, his speech made a compelling case for why we should have bombed Iraq three years ago.

The only difference between the situation in mid November and the situation in mid December was that the president's personal political standing had declined precipitously. In November, impeachment looked remote, but by December 16 it seemed almost certain. Senate majority leader Trent Lott then said publicly what most Republican congressmen had been saying privately: that the use of force just hours before the scheduled opening of the House debate on impeachment was questionable at best. Republican concerns had a considerable basis in fact. NBC's Tim Russert had reported that a Democratic pollster had told him that the attack would stall the rise in public support for impeachment or resignation, which by December 16 had reached 44 percent in at least one poll. Russert's Democratic source had also believed that, by diverting attention from the impeachment issue, the attack had bought the president time to put his crumbling political defenses back in order.

The key point is that the timing of a military strike is and always has been the exclusive call of the United States. No one said it better than Secretary of State Madeleine Albright shortly after Scott Ritter resigned in protest from the United Nations weapons inspection team: When dealing with Iraq, she said, you must "be able to choose your won timing and terrain." Either the president had failed to heed Albright, or, more likely, he had followed her advice very carefully and chose his own timing.

The president's rationale for attacking Iraq on December 16 rested on two basic points: (1) the timing was dictated by the report delivered to the Security Council by chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler and by the need to surprise Iraq; and (2) the attack needed to start before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The first claim was entirely spurious. There was no reason not to have attacked earlier, at any of several points in the weeks before December 16 -- when Saddam actually blocked the inspections, as reported by Butler. With equal plausibility, the president could have waited until after the House impeachment vote, because Saddam had been on notice since at least November (albeit for the seventh or eighth time) that Clinton was threatening military force.

The president's second claim was also faulty. Ruling out the use of force during Ramadan radically circumscribed what the attack could accomplish. Furthermore, it raised serious questions about why Clinton waited until just a few days before the holy month to begin military action.

More fundamentally, it was simply a gross mis-statement of Muslim concerns to have asserted that military action during Ramadan could not have been explained to the leaders of Muslim countries. Indeed, Muslim states attacked Israel during Ramadan in 1973. Showing sensitivity to the religious tenets of Islam is extremely important to managing the American-led coalition. However, any concerns raised by military attacks during Ramadan could have been satisfied by prudent diplomacy.

When he authorized the December 16 military attack against Iraq, the president contradicted a key element of his own justification for not attacking last month. In November, the president had claimed that maintaining Security Council unity was critical. Even France, Russia, and China had supported, or at least had acquiesced in, the American-British position. But this time around, Russia and China were in full-throated opposition, while France's reaction was mixed. So irritated was Russia, it recalled its ambassadors from Washington and London. What had happened to the importance of Security Council solidarity? Was solidarity another casualty of the president's domestic political fortunes?

The cloud over the president's credibility will only grow during the remainder of his term. This is why former House speaker-designate Bob Livingston's decision to keep the impeachment process on track by postponing debate for only a day was exactly the right thing to do. Moreover, his decision to propose a resolution supporting America's military forces in Iraq was also the right thing to do. Nonetheless, the confluence of impeachment and the president's timing on Iraq has only underlined the importance of expeditious action by the Senate now that the House has approved articles of impeachment.

John R. Bolton is senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. During the Bush administration, he served as assistant secretary of state for international organizations.

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