Clinton mustn't repeat sins of Iraqgate

William Safire

March 30, 1993|By William Safire

HOW can Bill Clinton be saved from making the same tragic blunders that ruined George Bush in the Persian Gulf?

The new president has already started down the primrose path of dallying with Saddam Hussein.

Two months ago, Mr. Clinton surprised us by saying he would judge Saddam on his future "conduct," reversing our policy to maintain sanctions on Iraq until the dictator had been deposed.

After some heat from hawks who think that Saddam's proven aggressive nature, not his manipulative conduct, should determine our policy, Vice President Al Gore was sent out to declare that the U.S. resolve to oust Saddam had not changed.

Last week the doves within the Clinton administration won; official policy reportedly is now to "depersonalize" our differences, and to deal with Saddam in the hope that this mass murderer can be, in George Bush's words, brought into the family of nations.

Behind the scenes, the old argument was trotted out: Because the greater threat is Iran, we mustn't be beastly to Iraq, its only regional counterweight.

Some of our geostrategists never learn: Only last week, we had to secretly protest Iran's under-the-table oil purchases from Iraq. Iran, which doesn't need the oil, wants to make friends with stability's enemy. Along with our condoning of Jordan's purchases, this turns economic sanctions to force Saddam into compliance with his surrender terms into a dead letter.

The truth is that the West cannot influence, let alone control, the weird Iran-Iraq dynamic, which alternates between killing each other by the millions and enriching each other by the billions. Our national interest is not to presume to balance the power of both nations, but to resist the empowering of each until one drops its megalomaniacal imperialism and the other its support of religio-terrorism.

How can the new administration learn the depth and extent of the danger it faces in appeasing gulf dictators? The answer is to find out the truth about what happened in the recent past in the still-hidden scandal called Iraqgate.

We have an urgent need to know what U.S. government programs were perverted to provide secret back-door foreign aid to Saddam; what lies were told Congress to conceal this conspiracy; and who reached what prosecutors in our Justice Department to obstruct investigation into a $2 billion rip-off of taxpayers.

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee voted to revive the independent counsel law, which the Bush Justice Department -- fearful of an unbiased look into its Coverup-Generals' actions -- did its best to kill forever.

Next week, the much-needed law is to be taken up in hearings by the Senate's government operations subcommittee, chaired by Carl Levin. He was prepared to delay hearings to elicit testimony against the bill by Caspar Weinberger, the former defense secretary -- pardoned in the Iran-Contra affair -- who has strong feelings about special prosecutors.

Let me speed up proceedings by assuring Senator Levin that Cap will not testify. (Ironically, the law firm that Mr. Weinberger has just entered is Rogers & Wells, whose representation of Italy will be part of the Iraqgate inquiry; perhaps Cap will tell Bill Rogers how not to deal with tenacious prosecutors.)

Republican objections to the costliness of independent counsel have largely been met in the proposed bill.

The new law would put a bookkeeper on the outside prosecutor's back; extend ethics and compensation guidelines of the Department of Justice to the independent counsel; and provide a fish-or-cut-bait clause requiring reassessment by a Special Court every three years. It even authorizes the A.G. to use this process to investigate Congress.

Although a presidential signature is promised, there is little enthusiasm on the Hill for a law that will enable an independent force to flip over the flat rock of Iraqgate.

In the U.S. Senate, for example, the new co-chairmen of the Select Intelligence Committee, Dennis DeConcini and John Warner, refuse to answer any queries into the CIA's guilty knowledge of our aid to Saddam's nuclear buildup; that see-no-evil attitude of senators eager to ingratiate themselves with the "community" suggests a failure of oversight past and future.

Time's a-wastin'; if the public does not soon learn the crimes of Iraqgate, Bill Clinton may be destined to repeat them.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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