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Profile: Monica Lewinsky
Monica Lewinsky was a participant or observer in the following events:
Monica Lewinsky. [Source: Fox News]President Clinton meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss restarting the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process (see Early 1998). Clinton immediately chastizes Netanyahu for meeting with American religious conservatives before meeting with him (see January 19-23, 1998), in an attempt to bring Netanyahu back to his side of the political fence. But Clinton is about to turn his attention to something radically different, and all but forget about Netanyahu. As Netanyahu’s political ally, televangelist Jerry Falwell, will recall, “While Netanyahu was sitting there, he was in a very difficult spot. The pressure was really on him to give away the farm in Israel. But while he was sitting there, someone came in and whispered in Mr. Clinton’s ear and Mr. Clinton turned several colors. Someone was telling him that the cat was out of the bag on [Clinton’s paramour] Monica Lewinsky. The meeting was terminated. Mr. Clinton had to save himself. The demands [to relinquish Israeli territory] that would have been forthcoming of Israel which would have been terrible, were not made. Netanyahu flew back to Israel. He was very funny when he told me about it. He said Israel had been saved by Monica Lewinsky.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 157]
In 1998, President Clinton faces a growing scandal about his sexual relationship with aide Monica Lewinsky, and even faces the possibility of impeachment over the matter. He is publicly interrogated about the scandal on August 17, 1998. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later claim that he worries Clinton might let the timing of the scandal get in the way of acting on new intelligence to hit Osama bin Laden with a missile strike in retaliation for the recent African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). But Clarke is reassured when Clinton tells his advisers, “Do you all recommend that we strike on the 20th? Fine. Do not give me political advice or personal advice about the timing. That’s my problem. Let me worry about that.” [Clarke, 2004, pp. 185-186] Defense Secretary William Cohen also warns Clinton that he will be criticized for changing the subject from the Lewinsky scandal. [Benjamin and Simon, 2005, pp. 358]
Criticism from Politicians - Clinton gives the go-ahead for the missile strike on August 20th anyway (see August 20, 1998) and is immediately widely criticized for it. In late 1997, there was a popular movie called “Wag the Dog,” based on a fictional president who creates an artificial crisis in order to distract the public from a domestic scandal. Republicans are particularly critical and seize upon a comparison to the movie. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) initially supports the missile strike, but later criticizes it as mere “pinpricks.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 117] Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) says, “The president was considering doing something presidential to try to focus attention away from his personal problems.” [Benjamin and Simon, 2005, pp. 358-359] Sen. Daniel Coats (R-IN) says, “I just hope and pray the decision that was made was made on the basis of sound judgment, and made for the right reasons, and not made because it was necessary to save the president’s job.” [New York Times, 8/4/2004]
Media Criticism - The media is also very critical, despite a lack of any evidence that Clinton deliberately timed the missile strike as a distraction. Television networks repeatedly show clips of the “Wag the Dog” movie after the missile strike. New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh reports, “Some reporters questioned whether the president had used military force to distract the nation’s attention from the Lewinsky scandal.” [Benjamin and Simon, 2005, pp. 358-359]
9/11 Commission Commentary - The 9/11 Commission will later conclude, “The failure of the strikes, the ‘wag the dog’ slur, the intense partisanship of the period, and the [fact that one of the missile targets probably had no connection to bin Laden (see September 23, 1998)] likely had a cumulative effect on future decisions about the use of force against bin Laden.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 118]
Air Traffic Controllers on board the USS Enterprise guide strike aircraft on bombing runs into Iraq. Photo taken December 17, 1998. [Source: US Navy]The US and Britain launch a joint series of over 250 air strikes against Iraqi military targets, in a campaign dubbed “Operation Desert Fox.” The air strikes are designed to, in the mission statement released by the US Navy, “degrade Saddam Hussein’s ability to make and to use weapons of mass destruction,” to “diminish Saddam Hussein’s ability to wage war against his neighbors,” and to “demonstrate to Saddam Hussein the consequences of violating international obligations.” The air strikes are carried out by US Navy and Marine Corps aircraft from the USS Enterprise, from US and British military bases in the region. The strikes feature, among other weaponry, over 400 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from naval vessels and US Air Force B-52s. Defense officials say that many of the strikes focus on destroying or damaging targets in southern Iraq, including surface-to-air missile sites, airfields, and command-and-control sites, all with the aim of giving US pilots a “safer corridor” to reach targets in the north. [American Forces Press Service, 12/18/1998; Barletta and Jorgensen, 5/1999; Roberts, 2008, pp. 121; US Department of Defense, 3/7/2008] Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz will later say that at least 62 Iraqis are killed in the strikes. No US or British casualties are reported. [BBC, 2002]
Failure to Comply with UN Inspections - President Bill Clinton explains that the military operation was in response to Iraq’s refusal to comply with UN weapons inspections (see December 16, 1998). “The international community gave Saddam one last chance to resume cooperation with the weapons inspectors,” Clinton says. “Saddam’s deception has defeated their effectiveness. Instead of the inspectors disarming Saddam, the Iraqi dictator has disarmed the inspectors.… Saddam has failed to seize the chance. So we had to act and act now.” Clinton continues, “Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas, or biological weapons.” He has used them before, Clinton adds, and “left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again.” [American Forces Press Service, 12/17/1998] US Secretary of Defense William Cohen says that the attacks “degraded Saddam Hussein’s ability to deliver chemical and biological weapons,” and defends the US’s right to act unilaterally against Iraq if it is in “our national interest.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair agrees with Clinton’s assessment. “He is a serial breaker of promises,” Blair says. [CNN, 12/16/1998]
Real Aim to Destabilize Hussein? - In January 1999, reporter William Arkin, a defense specialist, will write that he believes the strikes were designed to do far more than punish Iraq for not complying with UN inspections. The extremely specific target listings—down to specific buildings—and the nature of the targets chosen will lead Arkin to believe that Desert Fox was designed to cripple Iraq’s ability to wage war. Only 13 of the 100 or so sites were identified as chemical or biological weapons production or research facilities, Arkin will write. Additionally, Arkin will comment that the US-British strikes were not just to “degrade” Iraq’s military capabilities, but to destabilize the Hussein regime. [Washington Post, 1/17/1999]
Accusations of Political Distraction - Many of Clinton’s political opponents, including Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators and radio hosts, accuse Clinton, both during and after the strikes, of attempting to use a military operation to distract the nation from his admission of a sexual liaison with intern Monica Lewinsky. [BBC, 2002]
Destroys Remainder of Iraq's WMD Stockpiles - In 2004, US weapons inspector David Kay will say that Desert Fox and other 1998 air strikes destroyed the remaining stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons left over from the Gulf War (see January 23, 2004).
The 9/11 Commission privately interviews former President Bill Clinton about his counterterrorism policy. Clinton tells the Commission that he did everything he could to kill Osama bin Laden and is reluctant to criticize the current administration’s actions. In addition, Clinton says that the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal did not affect his decisions, although Democratic commissioner and former senator Bob Kerrey points out that it had a “big impact” on him and other Democratic lawmakers; when Clinton attacked al-Qaeda, they were forced to deny it was an attempt to divert attention from the scandal. Clinton may have been willing to testify publicly, but such a move was not considered seriously, as it would have been blocked by the Republicans on the Commission. Had Clinton testified in public and President George Bush only in private, this would have created the impression Bush was hiding something. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 303-306]
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