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Iraq Special Report

  Aides: President Saw Little Alternative

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page A1

President Clinton on Tuesday evening was flying away from one problem – the stumbling Middle East peace process – and straight into another, a Republican-led Congress that is determined to impeach him.

But somewhere over Europe, two hours into a 12-hour flight on Air Force One from Israel to Washington, Clinton reviewed his options on yet a third problem and decided to go to war.

The air campaign that began yesterday represents the most massive and lethal use of power during Clinton's presidency. Coming in the midst of an acrid debate about whether he should be removed from office, the decision could easily go down as the most controversial. But administration officials yesterday said it was made with relative ease.

After endless agonizing about what to do about Iraq, whose defiance of U.N. weapons inspectors has brought the United States to the brink of military action three times over the past 13 months, Clinton in the end had little alternative but to finally unleash his arsenal, various advisers said. The essential strategic decision, aides said, had been made a month ago, when Clinton had decided to go to war, then backed down with minutes to spare when Iraq pledged to comply with U.S. demands.

Some senior administration officials felt they had been burned by bad luck and ill-considered delay in November, sources said, believing that eventually an attack was inevitable despite Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's purported step back from the brink. So on Tuesday when Clinton went around the circle of his national security advisers, officials said, there was unanimity about the justification for the attack. There was also common understanding that Clinton's motives would come under attack from people who would accuse of him of trying to use his commander-in-chief power to influence the House impeachment vote.

Two of the most important aides were on board Air Force One with him: Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger. A half-dozen others, including Vice President Gore, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, were on a conference line.

The discussion began on the subject of the report that U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) Chairman Richard Butler had completed about Iraq's recent noncompliance with arms inspections. Would it provide enough examples to make it plain to public opinion why an attack was justified? Would there be support from nations in the Arab world?

After coming to agreement that the answer to these questions was yes, various officials said yesterday, the conversation turned to the more sensitive one: How would the attack intersect with the impending impeachment battle? Could officials answer the criticism that life was mimicking the movie "Wag the Dog," in which a president hires a Hollywood producer to fake a war to divert attention from a sex scandal? In this and other conversations with aides in recent days, according to participants, Clinton decided that the political dilemma was essentially insoluble. He would have to explain his decision and hope for the best.

Clinton's airborne decision put the attack into motion. He spoke by phone with the leader of the only U.S. ally also participating in the strikes, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

By the time Clinton returned to the White House at 11:43 p.m. Tuesday, there was still time to reverse his order, as Clinton did last month when Iraq appeared to back down. This time, however, the White House spent its remaining hours before the strike focused not on Baghdad but on Washington.

Podesta and Berger joined Clinton in the White House residence shortly after he got back. Then Clinton stayed up until 1:30 a.m. yesterday, talking by phone with Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Even before Clinton returned to Washington, Podesta and Berger had spoken with other leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.), about the probability of an attack.

Clinton, who aides say is not usually an effective morning person, was nonetheless on the job early yesterday. He stopped in for about 40 minutes at 7:30 a.m., joining a national security "principals committee" meeting underway in the White House Situation Room.

Then he took the unusual step of stopping in at the daily senior staff meeting, thanking aides for their hard work and urging them to stay focused in days ahead. Most of the aides, not yet privy to the impending attack, assumed he was talking about the impeachment proceedings scheduled to begin the next day.

The Iraq episode, said one senior White House official, highlighted anew what admirers call Clinton's capacity for concentration amid chaos. The Iraq problem, despite its prominence a month ago, had receded from public attention the past few weeks. This was in part due to a deliberate White House strategy to not talk much about Iraq, officials said, as a way of keeping options open and avoiding criticism from nations skeptical about the use of force.

Berger said that as early as Sunday the administration was getting advance reports about the content of Butler's report; U.S. officials at the United Nations had received informal briefings, one Clinton aide said.

In any event, the administration had anticipated Butler's negative conclusions for weeks. For the past week or so, White House deputy national security adviser James Steinberg had been chairing nearly daily meetings with national security officials on the logistics of an attack. During the Israel trip, senior officials there held two video conference meetings with colleagues in Washington from the Jerusalem Hilton.

While in Israel, Clinton was asked repeatedly about impeachment and the deal he helped negotiate between Israelis and Palestinians at October's Wye River conference. But days before the bombs and cruise missiles were set to fly, neither Clinton nor his senior officials were quizzed at news briefings about Iraq.

"It's amazing," said one senior aide. "You all thought he was dealing with two things. We all knew there was a third thing."

Yet if the episode showed Clinton's high tolerance for pressure, it also showed just how difficult it is for a president to lead when – by his own account – he has misled people, and other political actors say they regard him as untrustworthy.

At every public briefing yesterday, administration officials were questioned about the timing of the attack. Clinton defended the timing in his speech, and Berger said the White House had expected the questions.

Sources said yesterday that one House GOP leader, after being briefed by senior administration officials, responded that he would support an attack – if it came after the impeachment vote. White House officials were outraged, believing the comment from the House leader, whom they did not name, was every bit as politically motivated as what they were accused of doing.

Cohen and Joint Chiefs Chairman Henry H. Shelton found themselves under inquisition at a meeting last night with House members. Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) rose from his seat behind a table near the front of the House chamber and asked Cohen about the timing of the strikes. "Is there any reason why we shouldn't go ahead" with impeachment, DeLay asked, according to several lawmakers.

Cohen suggested it was up to the House to make a decision such as when to vote on impeachment. But DeLay pushed on, asking again whether there was any "national security reason why the House cannot proceed." Sources said Cohen, seemingly exasperated, eventually told DeLay an impeachment debate in the midst of an attack would hurt the morale of the troops.

It was unclear if minds were changed. Livingston, asked his reaction, would only say: "These are tough times."

Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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