The Magazine

WAR AND IMPEACHMENT

Dec 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 15 • By DAVID FRUM
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THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION'S DEFENDERS are shocked, absolutely shocked, that anyone might think the timing of the raid on Iraq had something to do with the impeachment vote in the House of Representatives. Geraldo Rivera -- usually a reliable indicator of this administration's thinking -- opined on television last Wednesday that never before in American history had any president had to endure such insinuations. Is the self-pity merited?


Let's take a little trip back through time. It's October 25, 1973, five days after Richard Nixon's "Saturday Night massacre" -- the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, and the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. It's also the twentieth day of the Yom Kippur war, and Israeli troops have crossed the Suez canal, surrounded an Egyptian army in the Sinai desert, and reached the outskirts of Damascus. Suddenly, President Nixon orders American troops worldwide placed on "precautionary alert" -- not a war footing, but close to it. Soldiers' leaves are canceled, B-52s in Guam are ordered back to the United States, and a third aircraft carrier is dispatched to the Mediterranean.


Does Washington rally round the president? Hardly. Nixon sends out National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger -- one of the few members of his administration to retain any credibility -- to face the press. Kissinger is asked much ruder questions than anybody dared put to Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, or Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: Not only is Kissinger challenged to explain whether the operation was "designed" with domestic political considerations in mind, but one reporter ventures to ask him to comment on whether he thinks Nixon entirely sane.


The Nixon administration was in fact reacting to a genuine and frightening threat: the possibility that the Soviet Union would send troops into the war zone to save Egypt and Syria from humiliation by Israel. Credible reports had reached Washington that 40,000 Soviet airborne troops were gathered in staging areas in southern Russia and that 6,000 Soviet marines might already have disembarked in Syria. But even after the genuineness of the crisis had been established; even after the Soviets had backed down; even after the alert ended, the doubts lingered. The Washington Post reported on October 26 that the capital was gripped by an "undercurrent of suspicion that the president might have escalated the crisis . . . to . . . take people's minds off his domestic problems." Newsweek suggested in its November 5, 1973, issue that the president's "flourish of crisis diplomacy" was a device to divert attention, and it quoted an unnamed administration source as saying, "We had a problem and we decided to make the most of it." Time questioned whether "the alert scare was necessary," and concluded that it probably was not.


This ancient history shows something more than the falseness of the Clintonites' claim that no previous administration has ever had to endure the skepticism that this one has. It points to parallels between the harm the Clinton presidency is doing to the country and that done by the Nixon and Johnson administrations a generation ago. Between 1966 and 1975, every poll of public opinion registered a dramatic drop in public trust and confidence in the government in Washington. The reasons for this drop are pretty obvious: Lie to people often enough and they stop believing your words; fail often enough and they lose faith in your judgment. And the decade from 1966 to 1975 abounded in lies and failures, both abroad and at home.


Some conservatives have been known to laud the collapse of trust in government, because it makes it harder for the likes of the Clintons to launch sweeping new social programs. That's true enough. But a widespread belief that politicians are liars and frauds is an equally effective weapon against tax cuts, school choice, and Social Security reform. Cynicism does not promote small government. As the sociologist Edward Banfield taught 30 years ago, a society in which people do not trust each other will not be able to govern itself. And a society that cannot govern itself will not be a society without government; it will be a society perpetually vulnerable to authoritarian government.


So when people say, as they do, that Ronald Reagan's most important achievement was restoring Americans' faith in themselves, they are not mouthing platitudes. Between 1979 and 1989, opinion polls showed a rise in public confidence in the trustworthiness of government. Reagan's strong leadership, his rock-solid personal integrity, and his consistent record of success won back much of the faith -- and some of the latitude to conduct a muscular foreign policy -- that Johnson and Nixon had forfeited. It was Reagan's record, crowned by the collapse of communism and the ultimate vindication of his hardline anti-Soviet policies, that made the Gulf War of 1991 politically feasible.


But Reagan's achievement was an incomplete one. Trust in government as measured by polls has never recovered the levels of the 1950s and early 1960s. Even at the peak of his popularity in 1984 and 1985, Reagan never commanded the deference that an Eisenhower or even a Kennedy once took for granted, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Nor did Reagan's achievement sink deep roots. The shock of the 1990 recession and George Bush's breach of his no-new-taxes pledge rolled poll-measured levels of public trust right back to their late-1970s nadir. And then Bill Clinton was elected.


So here we are: The economy is strong, still; crime, unwed pregnancy, abortion, and divorce are all trending down; the 1990s have been the first decade since the 1920s in which the United States has faced no powerful enemy. And yet, trust in government has not recovered as it did in the 1980s. Indeed, as Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute notes, while 73 percent of Americans in 1958 trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing "most" or "all" of the time; in 1998, 73 percent expect the government to do the right thing "only some of the time" or "never" -- a precise mirror image. Against this backdrop of low expectations and ill-humor, President Clinton ordered up a repeatedly postponed air war against Iraq 24 hours before he was sure to lose a House impeachment vote.


We should fervently hope that suspicions Bill Clinton timed a military operation for political protection remain just that -- suspicions. Because already, 80 percent of the public believes the president is a perjurer, and a majority believes that he organized an obstruction of justice. Yet Clinton's faithlessness, curiously enough, seems to be inflicting more damage upon the institution of the presidency than upon his own personal standing. He remains popular even as ever-increasing numbers of Americans describe the government he heads as corrupt and immoral. It's an impressive act of blame-shifting. So one has to wonder to what record heights public mistrust of government would ascend were it ever shown that Clinton had deployed the military -- even in a just and necessary cause -- for personal gain.


And one must fear that at the very same moment that the president's job ratings are reaching an all-time high, the troubling timing of this sudden and startling reversal of Clinton's foreign policy seems likely to perpetuate for another generation the poisonous suspicions that have crippled American foreign policy, and American government more generally, since the 1960s.




David Frum, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is completing a book on the 1970s.