On Aug. 20, 1998, American Tomahawk cruise missiles hit sites in Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The targets of the assault, ordered by President Bill Clinton, were Osama bin Laden and his band of terrorists.
In light of what would happen three years later, on Sept. 11, 2001, Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s secretary of state, was prescient. “We are embarked,” she said “on a venture in which we have to deal over the long run with what is the very serious threat to our way of life at the end of this century and the next one.”
One might imagine that Clinton’s decision was broadly popular. In fact, his move was met with an explosion of querulous partisanship. It occurred at the height of the controversy over his sexual relationship with a young White House intern that would, later in the year, lead to his impeachment. Many in the GOP charged that Clinton was trying to distract the nation from his scandal.
Clinton, as John Harris reported that summer in The Washington Post, was accused of “following a ‘Wag the Dog’ strategy – so-named after the recent movie in which a president tries to draw attention away from a sexual scandal by staging a phony war.”
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who now serves in President Trump’s administration as director of national intelligence, was one of the skeptics. “After months of lies and deceit and manipulations and deceptions – stonewalling – it raised into doubt everything he does and everything he says,” said Coats. He insisted that “it is legitimate to question the timing of this action.”
John Ashcroft, then a senator from Missouri, asked: “Were these forces sent at this time because he needed to divert our attention from his personal problems?”
Trump’s critics are certainly tempted to pursue a similar line of thinking about the strike he directed against Syria in retaliation for the odious chemical attack on civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s government. After all, Republicans paid no price when they questioned Clinton’s motives, and Trump would sorely love to divert the public from the disastrous opening weeks of his administration.
In particular, he has been happy to level false charges – first against former President Obama and then against Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser – to shift the focus away from inquiries into whether his presidential campaign colluded with Russia’s subversion of the 2016 election. The fact checkers regularly remind us that Trump meets the Coats standard of being a politician about whom we can reasonably “doubt everything he does and everything he says.”
But the Clinton experience should teach a different lesson. Albright was right to suggest that the threat posed by bin Laden should have taken more seriously than our inward-looking political system allowed in 1998, and Syria presents humanitarian and foreign policy problems that must be debated on their own merits.
On the strike itself, many Democrats (including the Senate and House Democratic leaders, Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi) had called for proportionate action against Assad back when he used chemical weapons in 2013. Unlike Trump, they chose to be consistent with their past positions. In supporting the president on last week’s military operation, Schumer, Pelosi and many others in their party signaled that upholding American values was more important than partisanship, even when a man they deeply mistrust occupies the White House.
But one military strike does not make a foreign policy, and when you watch Trump speak on the subject, it’s hard to escape the sense that he has absolutely no idea what he’s doing.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may have inadvertently given Assad a green light late last month by abandoning Obama’s stated policy that the dictator needed to be pushed out of power. What was the administration thinking? What comes next, and will Congress be involved? How do his approaches to Russia, Iran and Syria fit together? If Trump is moved by the suffering of Syria’s people, how can he keep blocking refugees from our shores?
And, yes, the new crisis over the Assad regime and the backing it is receiving from Vladimir Putin make it all the more urgent to get to the bottom of the relationship between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Trump’s opponents should not imitate the shortsightedness of Clinton’s 1998 critics. They should instead put their skepticism to work in pressing for a coherence on international matters that Trump has, to this point, been incapable of delivering.
E.J. Dionne can be contacted at email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.