All Commentary
Wednesday, September 1, 1999

A Superpowers Prerogative

America Should Use Its Power Responsibly


Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

Being in love means never having to say you’re sorry. Being a superpower apparently means the same thing. At least, that appears to be the lesson of President Bill Clinton’s promiscuous use of force.

It seems almost unpatriotic to suggest that a president would attack other nations for political purposes. Yet Bill Clinton’s conduct regularly raises this suspicion.

Shortly after testifying before the federal grand jury and giving his disastrous televised speech to the nation in August 1998, the President launched air strikes against both Afghanistan and Sudan. The timing seemed more than coincidental, since there was no compelling reason to attack when he did; indeed, the Joint Chiefs of Staff saw no need for immediate action.

Clinton’s sustained bombing of Iraq on the eve of Congress’s impeachment debate last fall seemed equally questionable. Nothing was gained by striking at Iraq at that moment. The alleged justification was a U.N. paper reaffirming what was already known about Iraq’s resistance to arms inspections. Moreover, Insight magazine reported that the decision to attack preceded release of the study.

Then there’s the war on Yugoslavia, which began in March. There were several embarrassing events that the President might have hoped to push off the front page—such as China’s spying and contributions to his campaign, and Judge Susan Webber Wright’s contempt citation against him in the Paula Jones case.

Clinton might be blameless, but his record of dissembling denies him any benefit of the doubt. The possibility that the President has been misusing the military for political purposes surely warrants at least a cursory examination by Congress, which is charged with declaring war and raising armies.

The assault on Sudan, in particular, brings up another profound issue of national abuse of power. Even if the President genuinely believed that the attack was necessary at the time, overwhelming evidence indicates that Washington hit the wrong target. Yet no one has been held accountable.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that America demonstrated that it can bomb—or shoot—with impunity. In 1985 a U.S. Navy ship on patrol in the Persian Gulf downed an Iranian airliner. Washington claimed that the plane was descending, outside of normal civilian flight paths, and not emitting normal civilian signals. It turned out that the government lied on every count. Washington eventually paid compensation to Iran, but never owned up to the American people.

Similarly, the Clinton administration doesn’t seem willing to confront its apparent mistake in Sudan. On August 20, 1998, a U.S. cruise missile destroyed the Ashifa Pharmaceutical Plant. American officials claimed that it produced nerve gas.

As with the Iranian airliner shoot-down, Washington offered a host of seemingly plausible justifications for its action. The plant was heavily guarded, run by the Sudanese military, financed by Saudi Arabian terrorist Osama bin Laden, produced no commercial products, and yielded a soil sample containing the chemical EMPTA, which is used in the production of VX, a nerve gas, and has no nonmilitary purpose.

Alas, as with the Iranian airliner, everything Washington said was subsequently disproved. Those who visited the plant said it was not guarded; even the administration abandoned its claim that bin Laden was behind the plant, shifting to the charge that the Sudanese military or Iraq was involved. But there was no evidence that Khartoum was involved and the alleged Iraqi connection was limited and seemingly innocuous. Sudanese dissidents said the new plant owner was nonpolitical.

It turns out the Ashifa factory did produce pharmaceuticals and veterinary drugs. Moreover, architects, engineers, and suppliers all said the plant lacked the extra space, equipment, materials, and air-sealed doors necessary for chemical weapons work.

Most important, EMPTA is difficult to isolate in soil; in fact, the incriminating soil sample could have resulted from the breakdown of common pesticides. EMPTA’s composition resembles that of several herbicides and pesticides, and could be confused with them in an imperfect test. Moreover, it turns out that there are legitimate, though limited, commercial uses of EMPTA.

All told, observed Oxford chemistry professor R. J. P. Williams: “‘Trace’ elements in adjacent soil are of no use. Either the administration has something to hide, or for some reason is withholding the evidence.” Indeed, in February American chemists brought in by the plant’s owners announced that their tests didn’t detect even trace elements of EMPTA.

Yet the administration refused to accept any outside inquiry. Even as Washington demanded an international review of alleged Serb atrocities in Kosovo, it rejected Sudan’s offer to open what remained of the plant for inspection, a dangerous course if the American charges were true.

Why did Washington reject Sudan’s proposal? National Security adviser Sandy Berger declared that “we had overwhelming grounds to strike this facility.”

Not that every administration official was so confident. One told the New York Times: “As an American citizen, I am not convinced of the evidence.” In fact, the administration eventually dropped its freeze on the plant owner’s assets—without, however, acknowledging fault.

Of course, maybe the administration was right. But Washington has no right to be judge and jury in its own case. First, bombing other nations should be a last rather than first resort. Yet the United States never demonstrated why it could not have achieved the same result through diplomatic pressure, which has worked in the past in Sudan. (That government previously expelled bin Laden.)

Second, targets should be chosen carefully. Even if Sudan was rightly attacked, there were other suspicious facilities—one near Khartoum that is tied to the military, for instance. One Pentagon official admitted: “There may have been better places to go.”

Third, launching a military strike should require evidence that satisfies someone other than just Washington. In 1986 President Reagan was willing to release confidential information to justify the assault on Libya as retaliation against the bombing of a disco frequented by Americans in Berlin.

The administration’s refusal to make a case to other nations strengthens the claim of Sudan’s ambassador to the United States, Mahdi Ibrahim Mohamed, who argued that the attack “was an act of lawlessness against the Sudan.” Even Milt Bearden, the CIA’s former station chief in Khartoum, said that he had his doubts about administration claims.

Yet today the issue lies forgotten. Washington has moved on; it has bombed Yugoslavia into rubble, making such inexcusable mistakes as hitting the Chinese embassy along the way.

This situation obviously isn’t good for other nations. It also isn’t good for America. For a government willing to act lawlessly abroad is likely to do the same at home.

Being the world’s only superpower yields responsibilities as well as benefits. One of those is admitting when it is wrong.


  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.