Tough Response Appeals to Clinton Critics
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 21, 1998; Page A17
President Clinton won warm support for ordering anti-terrorist bombing attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan yesterday from many of the same lawmakers who have criticized him harshly as a leader critically weakened by poor judgment and reckless behavior in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.
A few senators, however, noted that the timing of the attack raised the question of whether Clinton had ordered it to deflect attention from his personal affairs. Others suggested the scandal may be preventing the president from paying attention to critical international problems.
But most lawmakers from both parties were quick to rally behind Clinton in a deluge of public statements and appearances yesterday, a marked contrast to the relatively sparse and chilly reception that greeted his Monday statement on the Lewinsky matter.
"I think the president did exactly the right thing," House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said of the bombing attacks. "By doing this we're sending the signal there are no sanctuaries for terrorists."
Gingrich said he was told "very precise details" of the attack before it occurred, and praised Clinton's aides for being "sensitive to making sure we were not blindsided in this." Other congressional leaders, several of whom were on vacation or difficult to locate, said the White House had made an effort to notify them before the attacks.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) called the attacks "appropriate and just," and House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said "the American people stand united in the face of terrorism."
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) praised Clinton for doing "the right thing at the right time to protect vital U.S. interests against terrorist attacks," and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said the United States "should respond forcefully when U.S. lives are at stake."
It was clear from several lawmakers' statements that support for Clinton was not just a knee-jerk reaction, but also a response made easier because of former GOP senator and current Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. "I have enough confidence in [Cohen] to believe that he would not be involved in anything orchestrated for domestic political purposes," Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said.
Gingrich dismissed any possibility that Clinton may have ordered the attacks to divert attention from the scandal. Instead, he said, there was an urgent need for a reprisal following the Aug. 7 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
"Anyone who watched the film of the bombings, anyone who saw the coffins come home knows better than to question this timing," Gingrich said. "It was done as early as possible to send a message to terrorists across the globe that killing Americans has a cost. It has no relationship with any other activity of any kind."
To underscore this view, Rich Galen, one of Gingrich's top advisers, sent an e-mail to conservative radio talk show hosts entitled "Wag the Dog," after a recent movie of the same name in which White House spin doctors concoct an international crisis to draw attention away from a president's sexual indiscretions.
"Speaker Newt Gingrich has made it clear to me" that the attacks were necessary and appropriate, Galen said. "This is a time to put our nation's interests ahead of our political concerns. I am asking you to help your listeners, your friends, and your associates to look at this situation with the sober eyes it deserves."
Gingrich made the same point himself during a conference call with House Republicans late yesterday, telling colleagues that while none of them has to mute criticism about the Lewinsky matter, "on this topic I think it's very useful and I think it sends a powerful signal to the world" that the GOP stand with Clinton.
But Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), one of Clinton's severest critics earlier in the week, said, "There's an obvious issue that will be raised internationally as to whether there is any diversionary motivation." Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), a possible presidential candidate in 2000, noted "there is a cloud over this presidency."
And Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who called on Clinton to resign after his speech Monday, said: "The president has been consumed with matters regarding his personal life. It raises questions about whether or not he had the time to devote to this issue, or give the kind of judgment that needed to be given to this issue to call for military action."
Told of these criticisms, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, branded them "preposterous," and noted that Osama bin Laden, suspected of bankrolling the installations that were bombed, "is one bad mother."
"Even if that [a diversion] were an element, what in the hell does it do to us around the world for leading American officials to even suggest that?" Biden asked. "It is not very sound judgment to speak in terms of motivation other than national security at this moment."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who in recent days has been very critical of Clinton on the Lewinsky matter, also supported the bombing raids, noting, "In the past I was worried that this administration didn't take this threat seriously enough, and didn't take Osama bin Laden seriously enough; I'm going to support him, wish him well and back him up."
And urge him on, a view supported bluntly by House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.). "If anything, this was somewhat overdue, and I'm not talking days, but months and years. This needs to be the first punch we land. We need to land more," Goss added, warning that "now that we have struck back, it is sure to inflame them even more. All Americans need to understand that."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stressed the importance of a strong U.S. role in foreign affairs, and criticized the administration for ignoring problems other than bin Laden, including Iraq dragging its feet on arms inspections, "North Korea building nuclear weapons," a stalled Mideast peace process, and "thousands of people being ethnically cleansed in Kosovo.
"This administration for the last seven months has neglected compelling national security threats besides this," said McCain, a member of the Armed Services Committee. "I cannot say that they've been neglected because of Monica Lewinsky, but I can say unequivocally that they have been neglected."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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