Did the GOP Obsession with Monica Lewinsky contribute to 9/11? Is the Benghazi hysteria deja vu?

(By Juan Cole)

The reemergence in the news of Monica Lewinsky is also a reminder of one of the lowest deeds in modern politics, the impeachment of Bill Clinton by House Republicans in December of 1998.

What is too little noted is the effect of the GOP circus on our national security. The partisans howled that Clinton’s August 1998 Tomahawk missile strike on Usama Bin Ladenin Pakistan was mere “wagging the dog” (military action taken as a distraction from domestic political problems). The strikes came in the midst of the Republican witch hunt against Clinton for the affair. The inability of the administration to gain bipartisan support, or strong public support (given the braying of the Limbaughs and other carnival freak acts of the Right), for concerted action against al-Qaeda allowed the organization the breathing room to plan out the 2000 attack on the USS Cole off Aden in Yemen and then the September 11, 2001 assault on the United States. There was a time when members of one political party loved the interests of the country more than they hated the other party.

Clinton later observed of Bin Laden,

“CLINTON: What did I do? What did I do? I worked hard to try to kill him. I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since . . . I tried and I failed to get bin Laden. I regret it. But I did try. And I did everything I thought I responsibly could… The entire military was against sending Special Forces in to Afghanistan and refueling by helicopter. And no one thought we could do it otherwise, because we could not get the CIA and the FBI to certify that Al Qaida was responsible [for killing Americans] while I was president. ”

The Republican engineering of doubts about the administration’s motives in pursuing al-Qaeda forcefully demonstrably had a negative effect on the morale of the security establishment. Journalist Susan Page wrote in late fall, 2001, on the question of whether the Clinton team did all they could: , “Interviews with more than two dozen senior officials who worked in or with the Clinton administration on terrorist issues reveal an answer that lacks black-and-white clarity. The bottom line: The Clinton administration took significant steps against bin Laden but, reluctant to lose American lives and fearing a lack of public support, decided against the most aggressive responses.”

The Clinton counter-terrorism team, especially terrorism czar Richard Clarke, had fair information about the character of al-Qaeda. They suffered from lack of good intelligence on the ground in Qandahar and elsewhere (the Bush administration failed to find Bin Laden for 8 years despite having military occupied Afghanistan and penetrating Pakistan with intelligence operatives; imagine the dearth of intelligence in the 1990s). But you have to wonder whether they didn’t back off Tomahawk strikes and other direct action against the al-Qaeda leadership after the “wag the dog” charge gained traction. They knew that such counter-terrorism was risky and could go wrong. And they knew who exactly the “contract on America” GOP in the House would blame if anything went wrong.

The Republican Party’s partisan and venal purveying of a minor affair into a matter of state was not driven by morality or law. As comedian Jerry Seinfeld observed at the time, “Lying about sex? Everyone lies about sex. Without lying, there would be no sex.” Many of the Republican representatives who led the impeachment effort, including Newt Gingrich, had had well known affairs, which they had concealed from their publics.

The mystery is why anyone cared. The Puritans still haunt America. In contrast, French President Francois Hollande came to office having abandoned his wife (a former presidential candidate herself) for a girlfriend, whom he in turn later abandoned, once in the presidential palace, for a film star with whom he made assignations on a motorbike. His popularity ratings went up slightly when the matter became public.

The GOP tactic worked as politics. Clinton was enormously popular and would have been a formidable campaigner for Al Gore, who, however, was afraid to be seen with him on the campaign trail in 2000. So the vicious politics of reputation gave us a president who had been a notorious philanderer and alcoholic for 20 years, who demoted the terrorism czar from a cabinet position so that Clarke had trouble calling meetings on al-Qaeda in 2001, and who later deployed the tragedy of 9/11 as a pretext for invading and occupying Iraq, which had had nothing to do with it. Because the Republican Party is naturally a minority party in national election– a coalition of the 1% with farmers, some small town folks, and some white surburbanites, it feels forced to create scandals and talk about impeachment in order to level the playing field.

The current GOP witch hunt over the Benghazi attacks is also bad for US security. The State Department is being forced into a posture of risk avoidance rather than forceful diplomacy. The embassies in Libya and Tunisia have been manned by skeleton crews since 2012, contributing to the US inability to play a role in the aftermath of the Arab upheavals. The US embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, was closed last week after some al-Qaeda attack in the capital. The GOP’s hysteria about seeking to blame the administration is hurting our political reporting and ability to make and maintain contacts. It is deja vu all over again.


Related video:

The Young Turks from last week: “Monica Lewinsky Speaks, Fox News Attacks & Is… Right?”

16 Responses

  1. When you talk about Clinton’s missile strikes, shouldn’t you mention the other target too? That Clinton had Sudan’s largest pharmaceutical factory bombed. That’s what should have gotten him impeached and thrown in jail, and it also shows that bombs as anti-terrorist weapons is a very blunt tool with lots of collateral damage.

  2. Certainly the priorities of the FBI under Louis Freeh were not on combatting terrorism at that time.

  3. elvis

    future people will read C20/21 America stories as we read Greek myths. Hero – quest – human flaw – ethic knot -cosmic consequences.

  4. Joe

    The shocking thing was Bush admin’s total absence of own thoughts coming in. Instead it was all if Clinton’s for, we’re agin.

  5. I genuinely feel sorry for Monica Lewinsky. She has to know that when she dies what certain historical facts will obviously be in the lead paragraph of her obit. But Monica-gate will have little traction in the presidential election when Hillary makes her second run for the office. And likewise with the Benghazi attacks. President Ronald Reagan resoundingly won a second term in the office despite the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. And though I’m a Vietnam veteran, I had no animus against Bill Clinton and voted for him as president during his first run. That was despite the GOP’s smear campaign that he was a “draft dodger.” Quite honestly, if I could get into a time machine and travel back to the sixties, I would probably have avoided serving in the military. But I’ve had a lot of therapy at the local VA clinic. And I never bought into this “wag the dog” meme that Professor Cole brings up in his essay. And I could care less that George W. Bush hid out in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. But that said, I am still amazed that only an unrecovered alcoholic would actually invade the wrong country to cause the worst foreign policy debacle since the Vietnam War. Now that’s classic behavior from a fellow baby boomer. And Newt Gingrich hounding Bill Clinton for impeachment while he is carrying on an affair with an aide on his staff who would become his wife after he divorces his current wife, well, that also classic behavior from a fellow baby boomer. And Bill Clinton being a serial womanizer is also classic behavior from a baby boomer. But having been to divorce court twice, I know I live in a glass house and avoid the urge to throw bricks at anyone. I’m also a classic baby boomer. Somehow this country will survive all us baby boomers. I have almost a blind and naive faith in the resilience of the American people which was last seen in one of Frank Capra’s films from the thirties.

    But the main point to me is the GOP’s going through a profound identity crisis since it signed a deal with the devil and became a hostage to the far right wing represented in the ranting and raving of the members of the Tea Party. It really seems to be having a slow-motion nervous breakdown. It’s publicly acting out its frustrations with itself. think. I think Freud called it the repetition compulsion in neurotic behavior. And athough I’m a sucker when it comes to cheap entertainment, even I’m getting a little bored with the GOP’s schtick. Professor Cole brought up Seinfeld, and I still remember that episode when Jerry and George Constanza pitch to TV executives their concept for a new comedy series and tell the suits it will be about nothing. That’s the rut the GOP is in. But the fun has worn off. As George loved to say when he got frustrated, yadda, yadda this and yadda, yadda that. That’s pretty much how I see the GOP.

    • I like your post. But why do you think the world has to ‘survive the baby boomers’. The generation before got us into Vietnam and the Cold War.

      • A very good point, rbtl, about how the generation that fought the Cold War got us into Vietnam. But they endured the Great Depression and then they had to fight the Second World War.

        Studs Terkel called it the last “good war.” I served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam. And there are no “good wars.” Yet I will concede it was our last necessary war.

        That was the mindset that motivated the Cold War, the Korean War and the last big proxy war of that era in Vietnam. I’m over simplifying of course. But we were trying to preserve Western democracy and stop the communist regimes in Red China and old Soviet Union from subverting countries throughout the world. Or dominoes would fall like that scene in “The Fog of War” in Errol Morris’ documentary about Robert S. McNamara, architect of the Vietnam War, as secretary of defense.

        The road to hell in Vietnam was paved with good intentions at the time. But it was the worst foreign policy debacle in our nation’s history. Now at this point in my life, I don’t hold any grudges against the boomers who stayed behind and protested against the war. But baby boomers in both parties had no moral qualms about them sending our young men and women overseas to fight in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Bush fought the war on the cheap off the books with no increased taxes to pay for the wars. At least, LBJ caved eventually and signed into law a bill for a surcharge tax to pay for the Vietnam War. The boomers have completely forgotten the lessons of Vietnam. The army has been hollowed out once again as in the Vietnam War by the soldiers doing multiple tours of duty overseas and many are permanently disabled costing us around $50 billion for care through the VA. Then the Great Recession bought about by greedy CEOs, mostly boomers, in too big to fail banks and brokerage firms on Wall Street. They got bailed out by TARP, still make big bonuses and complained how hurt they fell by their fellow Americans.

        • “The boomers have completely forgotten the lessons of Vietnam.”

          It’s debatable whether many of the boomers, pre-boomers and post-boomers learned any lessons from Vietnam to forget them. There were lessons taught by the Civil War, the War to End All Wars, WWII, Korean War, but they, too, for the most part went unlearned.

        • I’m a Vietnam vet too, and I have to question the assertion that at any time, start to finish, the road to Hell in Vietnam was paved with any kind of what I would accept as good intentions at all. Even those of us who enlisted to do all that Boy Scout crap we learned as young potential warriors, about “trustworthy, loyal, brave, reverent” and all that, and who bought the notion that “we” were “protecting the Nation” or “defeating Communism,” were totally suckered and off the beam, by all I have learned since then. I think “Catch-22” had it exactly right, along with Smedley Butler — it was just a huge Milo Minderbinder Clusterbombf__k, a massive wealth transfer, and the abuse of what should have been decent sentiments and motions of so many of us who did the cannon fodder dance. It was not a debacle for the people who profited from it, and set themselves and their successors up to keep reaping wealth from the rest of us by sowing death among us.. Just a continuation of the long attempt to maintain first France, and then the US Empire, in a colonial-power position over there. And now you can buy Walmart clothes “Made in Vietnam” by Commies, and “we” are talking about a Great Game return to having the 7th Fleet operating out of Cam Ranh Bay again. And in the meantime, the combustoconversion of Carbon to CO2 goes on apace, and generals live in splendor, and “our” MIC forms up and heads out to “take charge” of the whole effing planet.

  6. Clinton should have been impeached for maintaining the sanctions on Iraq when it became known that thousands of children were dying as a consequence, but there wasn’t much chance of that in a disreputable Congress.

  7. It’s tough to have any respect for a President who would endanger his administration for a hummer. His profession is politics, he knew the political consequences of being found out, yet proceeded in the face of a known danger. He tainted his obituary as well. Everything we do is a test of character. His character is shown by Ricky Ray [who wanted his jailer/executioners to save the leftovers of his last meal for the next day] Rector; Monica; Death Penalty ‘reform’; and banking ‘reform’. One can legitimately ponder whether the country was better off with Bush I losing. It felt good, but was it good? Rather like what Bill should have asked himself before his predatory moment with an employee. Clinton gave them the club, can’t really fault them for beating him with it. Under first causes, this is Bill’s doing. There’s much, seemingly endless fault, in D.C.

  8. I’ve said for years the impeachment of Clinton preoccupied and distracted Washington, giving Bin Laden and/or al-Qaeda all the berth they needed, and more, to organize their strike on 9/11. A shameful, embarrassing as well as tragic episode of our body politic.

  9. The refusal of Gore to campaign with Clinton had the most baneful consequences for the nation: the election of Bush, whose negligence opened the door to Al Qaeda and a decade of war and financial ruin.

    • “The refusal of Gore to campaign with Clinton had the most baneful consequences for the nation:”

      It didn’t help that Gore ran an appallingly incompetent campaign in more ways than one. And there is no telling what he would have done with Joe Lieberman (D-AIPAC) as his vice president.

      Then Kerry came along and used Gore’s playbook for his campaign.

  10. ABSOLUTELY. I’ve been saying this for many years (must search my articles and BLOG). Juan doesn’t mention the actual trigger for Clinton’s OBL destruction- the hideous twin Embassy bombings in Narobi and Dar Es Salaam only killed a dozen American but about 500 Africans in July or Aug ’98. it was the absolute height of Monica-gate- and had that lame scandal not obsessed the country, Clinton would have sent in commandos to wipe out OBL- no 9-11, no Afghanistan War, no Bush, no Iraq War, no loss of liberties and freedoms, no torture, no $10 tril lost and wasted, no 8000 dead, 50 wounded US soldiers or 1/2 mil dead Iraqis. I spent 4 months of my life trying to save Clinton with an Internet anti-impeachment org I set up, STOP THE MADNESS http://msnoh.tripod.com We sent thousands of faxes, wrote articles, arguments, collected tens of thousand of petition (to fire Starr) signatures, and finally printed it all in a pretty professional 1″ book that we distributed to 22 Repub Senators and some Dems. I think we swayed 3 votes, but the prevailing sentiment (even among editors) was that Clinton was scum, so I actually did it all under a pseudonym, afraid it would ruin my journo career. The Smithsonian even wanted my site for some archive about the Impeachment but I didn’t do it. Duhhhhh

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