The Progressive magazine, October 1998
President Clinton's bombings of Afghanistan and the Sudan
showed a disregard for international law and a disrespect for
our constitutional system of government. Welcome to the war against
terrorism, where the United States responds in kind, promising
an infinite series of attacks and counterattacks.
Of the many things wrong with Clinton's action, perhaps sending
some sixty cruise missiles over Pakistan was the most reckless,
since it could have falsely alarmed Pakistan that India was attacking
with nuclear weapons, thus risking a nuclear war in the subcontinent.
Not all of the missiles aimed at Afghanistan hit their target.
At least one fell on Pakistan. Nuclear physicists in Pakistan
were eagerly examining the missile, which didn't explode, for
clues on how to perfect their own.
"Pakistani scientists and weapons experts are studying
components salvaged from an American cruise missile that landed
. . . in southern Pakistan," The Washington Post reported.
"They expressed optimism that they could unlock technological
secrets that will advance Pakistan's missile program."
As one Pakistani security official put it: "It is a gift
from the God. The country that had denied us all sorts of economic
and military assistance has suddenly gifted us the weapon of choice
from its arsenal."
The divine gift was illegal under international law, however.
"International law prohibits the unauthorized overflight
of other countries," says Peter Weiss, president of the Lawyers'
Committee on Nuclear Policy. Defense Secretary William Cohen said
on Meet the Press that the United States did not warn Pakistan
of the missile flights.
The United States also violated the sovereignty of the Sudan
and Afghanistan. The only time a country can take unilateral action
under international law is when it's a matter of self-defense,
says Weiss. The United States invoked self-defense in this instance,
but it was a specious claim.
"The United States was definitely not abiding by international
law," says Weiss. "Self-defense is an extremely limited
concept, relating to the invasion of your country. It does not
cover speculative, preemptive strikes."
With the missile attacks on the Sudan and Afghanistan, the
United States has demonstrated that it is just as willing to use
violence, and just as willing to kill civilians, as anyone else.
The early casualty count was twenty-one dead and forty injured
in Afghanistan, and one dead and nine injured in the Sudan.
By launching missiles to combat terrorists, the United States
reduced itself to the tactics of the terrorists themselves.
Another reckless aspect of the missile attack was the targeting
of the Sudanese pharmaceutical company, which looks less and less
like a chemical weapons plant every day. The pharmaceutical factory
produced half the medicines for the entire country, press reports
indicate. The bombing "will cause a drug shortage that could
cost many thousands of lives, Sudanese doctors said," according
to The Washington Post. The attack "will really hit the poor
Sudanese. They will be deprived of medicines for a long time,"
said Mohammed Hassan Tayeb, president of a Sudanese doctors' union.
The plant was also under contract with the United Nations
to export medicine, though the United States didn't even know
that the plant made medicines, Defense Secretary Cohen admitted
two weeks after the attack.
As far as the claim that the plant was producing chemical
weapons, the evidence was dubious. "I have intimate knowledge
of that factory, and it just does not lend itself to the manufacture
of chemical weapons," Tom Carnaffin, a British technical
manager of the plant in the mid-1990s, told The London Observer.
The Clinton Administration claimed to have evidence that the
plant produced Empta, a chemical used in the production of nerve
gas. But "other officials now say it is unclear that Empta
was actually produced at the plant," The New York Times reported.
There is also a question as to whether Empta could be used
for purposes other than making chemical weapons. And there is
some doubt that the chemical even was Empta in the first place.
"Several chemical weapons experts outside the [U.S.] government
say the single soil sample, if it was not carefully preserved
and quickly tested, could have misidentified the key ingredient,"
The New York Times reported. "They said Empta is chemically
similar to several available pesticides and herbicides, including
the commercially available weed killer called Round-Up."
In any event, the overarching question is: What standard of
intervention is the United States upholding? In the 1980s, when
the Reagan Administration was financing a war against Nicaragua,
did the Sandinistas have the right to attack us? When anti-Castro
Cubans in Miami were plotting terrorism against Havana, would
Castro have been justified to launch missiles against the United
Unilateral military action by the President is not what our
founders had in mind. The Constitution grants Congress the exclusive
power not only to declare war but "to define and punish piracies
and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against
the law of nations," and to "grant letters of marque
and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water."
Since the end of World War II, Presidents have been arrogating
to themselves these powers of Congress. Clinton is no exception,
but his action was the most self-serving since Ronald Reagan invaded
Grenada on October 25,1983, just two days after 218 Marines were
killed in Lebanon.
Less than three days after Clinton's lowest day in office,
just as calls for his resignation were beginning to mount, he
launched these attacks, knowing full well that he was bound to
receive a boost in popularity. You do not have to believe that
the Pentagon, the State Department, and the CIA all were interested
in helping Clinton divert attention from Monica Lewinsky. It's
more likely that the hawks throughout the government have been
itching for some time to attack someone, somewhere, so as to demonstrate
American might and justify the $260 billion "defense"
budget. When Clinton became too weak to resist, he gave the nod
to the missile strike.
Right after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright insisted that "our memory is
long, our reach is far." But the United States dispensed
with the need for a long memory: It was bomb now, take names later.
The United States is supposed to gather evidence, and if the
evidence is sufficient, it is supposed to seek extradition of
suspects from countries harboring them. None of that was done
in this case until after the cruise missiles flew.
We should not become like the terrorists. If we do they will
have won. And yet that is exactly what is happening. Clinton is
bombing away. And many Senators are calling for the lifting of
the U.S. ban on assassinations. Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican
of Utah and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, wants
to take things a step further, suggesting that the CIA should
be allowed to assassinate terrorists right here in the United
Interviewed on August 9 on This Week With Sam Donaldson &
Cokie Roberts, Hatch was asked explicitly about assassinations.
Here's what he said: "There should be nothing that should
not be on the table when it comes to protecting our citizens overseas
or anywhere else, for that matter, against terrorists. We have
terrorists in our own country. I will just give you a very conservative
estimate: We have 1,500 to 2,000 known terrorists and terrorist
organizations in America. If we don't treat that very tough, we're
going to reap the whirlwind."
If Hatch has his way, the CIA will be able to dump its victims
on the shoulder of I-90.
One way the United States should fight terrorism is to stop
training terrorists. Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind
behind the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, earned his
spurs working with the CIA in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation.
He was "fighting alongside the mujahedeen rebels, whom the
Central Intelligence Agency sponsored in Afghanistan," The
New York Times reported. A Saudi intelligence official told the
Times that "Mr. bin Laden learned a lot of tricks from the
CIA, which was glad to help him fight the Russians.... He was
a point man."
The camp in Afghanistan, "which the Americans bombed,
was originally set up by the CIA to train Afghan-and Arab-guerrillas
in their war against the Soviet army," Robert Fisk wrote
in the London Independent.
The United States has yet to own up to the calamity that it
caused by financing, arming, and training the Afghan rebels in
the early 1980s. The brutal Taliban government would not be in
power today were it not for this CIA covert war. It would not
be housing Osama bin Laden. It would not be repressing freedom.
It would not be subjugating women. It would not be slaughtering
The U.S. strikes may have some unfortunate consequences. They
may incite retaliation: It's quite conceivable that they will
inspire more terrorism against the United States and American
citizens. The Clinton Administration is warning U.S. citizens
to take extra precautions, and airports across the country are
under heightened security.
Clinton's action may also have negative repercussions diplomatically.
They are likely to complicate, if not devastate, efforts to resolve
such problems as the civil war in the Sudan, or the Middle East
peace process, or the efforts to get Pakistan and India to disarm.
Sending cruise missiles half way around the world is the easiest
thing for a beleaguered President to do. But it is not the right
thing. It is the most cynical use of power.
Policy and Pentagon