On August 20, 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered the US Military to fire Tomahawk missiles at the Harkatul Jihad Al-Islami military training camp in Khost, Afghanistan. Intelligence reports indicated that Osama Bin Laden would travel here for dinner, 94 miles southeast of Kabul, Afghanistan. Had not Bin Ladin not postponed this visit, he would have in all likelihood died or been seriously injured in the strike. The attack occurred two seeks following Al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in East Africa. In total, 75 cruise missiles struck terrorist targets in Afghanistan and the Sudan, until then the most formidable U.S. military assault ever against a private sponsor of terrorism.
Briefed in advance, most Republican Congressional leadership expressed support for the attack. However, some publicly questioned whether Clinton ordered the strikes to distract the public’s attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal as three days prior Clinton’s acknowledgment to the public and a grand jury his relationship with the former intern.
On December 17, 1998, The House of Representatives scheduled a session to consider whether to impeach President Clinton. However, the day before President Clinton ordered a series of military air strikes against Iraq, along with Great Britain, following the failure of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to comply with U.N. weapons inspectors. Clinton’s timing drew immediate criticism from Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott who stated: “I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time. Both the timing and the policy are subject to question.” Concerned about debating the removal of America’s Commander in Chief with U.S. pilots “in harm’s way,” Democrats asked Republicans to postpone the impeachment proceedings until after the conclusion of the joint U.S.-British military operation. Republicans, however, allowed only a 24-hour delay.
Would Clinton have pursued even stronger or additional responses to the Al Qaeda and Iraqi threats if his motives had not been questioned? Would such actions have thwarted 911 and the eventual Iraqi war? Certainly support from the international community would have been less tepid with unified domestic understanding of the U.S.’ motivation and those targeted clear that the US attacks were in fact about them, and not Clinton’s political concerns.
With the Afghanistan War continuing, some US troops still in Iraq and terrorist around the globe, particularly in Pakistan and Yemen, working day in and day out to kills westerners, the events of 1998 may be instructive once the Republican Congressional majority takes office in January 2011.
Views on foreign policy and US military action will differ between and amongst the political parties. The current rhetoric attacking President Obama from some Republicans harkens back, however, to 1998. Thus, to avoid previous mistakes and lost opportunity, debate over President Obama’s foreign and military policies needs to be based on issues germane to the conflicts instead of allegations of mal intent. To do otherwise will further weaken the United States, a trend dating back to 1998 and obviously exacerbated by 911, Iraqi failures, the economy and military overextension.
And yes, many questioned the personal intent of President Bush in re Iraq and other military actions, including statements that he invaded to assuage his father’s legacy. However, this form of criticism came from the media and general public, not Democratic Congressional leadership. People may and should express their views regardless of appropriateness. Our nation’s leaders, however, must understand the implications of joining such chorus’; for all our sake.