Clinton’s Gut Issue

[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 Hustler: The Clinton L... Joseph Sobran Best Price: $1.98 Buy New $95.65 (as of 08:10 UTC - Details) 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.

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.

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 percent verbal approval isn’t the same thing as 90 percent 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.

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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.

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.

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.


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.