Impeachment and Foreign Policy Redux | Charles Duelfer

Impeachment and Foreign Policy Redux

In February 1998, I was in Baghdad discussing the ongoing disputes between Iraq and the UN weapons inspectors with Saddam’s key deputy Tariq Aziz. (I was the deputy chairman of the UN WMD inspection group called UNSCOM.)  It was late night and Aziz had his usual Cohiba cigar filling the room with bluish smoke. The intended topic, appropriately, was chemical weapons. 

Aziz cleared his throat and said, yes we’ll get to chemical weapons, but would I indulge him in a different question, drawing on our long mutual dialogue over the years.  I nodded and he proceeded to ask me, “Mr. Duelfer, what is an intern?”  

The Lewinsky affair had recently broken in Washington.  It was huge news.  Throughout 1998 the two dominant issues consuming Washington were the Lewinsky affair and the contentious disputes over access of WMD inspectors to sites in Iraq.

The Iraqis did not understand the Lewinsky business.  How could the last superpower be disabled by an affair with some 20-something in the White House?  This was beyond Saddam’s comprehension. 

However, in subsequent questioning after the 2003 war, when I was head of the Iraq Survey Group we explored extensively their thinking and policy making with Saddam and his top lieutenants.  It became clear that while Saddam did not understand why an inconsequential intern could hobble the president of the United States, he did understand the White House was distracted and weakened—especially as scandal turned to impeachment.  Baghdad took key decisions throughout the summer and fall of 1998 that ultimately led to the end of UNSCOM’s inspections in Iraq and four days of bombing beginning on December 16 by the US (with support from the UK, but with no consensus in the UN Security Council).  It turned out to be a good move by Iraq.  Inspectors were gone, and sanctions, while not formally lifted, were definitely crumbling. 

In the midst of the bombing, President Clinton was impeached by the House in a vote on December 19.  However, President Clinton was not removed from office as the senate did not even come close to the 2/3 number voting to convict.

Twenty-one years later, another president is subject to impeachment proceedings.  The outcome and debates are much the same when you go back and read the press coverage.

What is not covered in the press are the calculations of foreign powers calculating whether the Washington is weakened or distracted.   Iran, North Korea, Russia, China and virtually every nation on the planet are evaluating what the effect is on President Trump and US foreign policy.  Is it a time to take advantage, to press ahead?  Does it mean they should hold still until an outcome is clear? 

Will the White House be more or less inclined to act militarily since that has typically be a good diversion.  Cynics (and who isn’t in Washington) must ascribe some element of that to the decision to execute a drone strike on Qasem Soleimani.  The same was said of the Clinton White House and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright firmly stated that the decisions of foreign policy were made independent of the turmoil in te White House. 

It’s safe to say that our opponents around the world will see this as weakness on the part of the United States, not just one political party over another.

On a light-hearted note, if you’re sick of the blather about impeachment, watch the dark comedy movie, “War the Dog.” Robert DeNiro plays a spin-doctor brought in by the White House whose occupant was caught in a scandal with an underage girl in the Oval office.  The spin-doctor concludes that the best way to distract attention from the scandal is to create a war.  Dustin Hoffman plays a Hollywood producer who cooks up script and scenes for a war in Albany.  The media is taken in and there are twists and turns but the most amazing thing is that the movie came out in 1997—before the Lewinsky events.  Life imitates art.

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