On December 16 1998, just three days before he would be impeached by the House of Representatives, Bill Clinton delivered a televised address to inform the world he had ordered military strikes against Iraq – allegedly for breaching UN sanctions.
“Their purpose is to protect the national interest of the United States, and indeed the interests of people throughout the Middle East and around the world,” said the sombre-faced president.
Two decades later, Donald Trump had already been impeached by the House when he ordered a strike in Iraq, a targeted killing of Iran’s most senior military leader. He too, insisted it was done to protect America’s interests.
“General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more … but got caught,” he tweeted.
In 1998, Clinton was widely criticised by those who thought he was seeking to distract from his domestic political problems. Plenty accused him of hypocrisy over Iraq. If the US was so concerned about the plight of Iraqi civilians, why was it enforcing sanctions that were killing thousands of children? A top UN official, Denis Halliday, would quit two months after the strikes.
There is little doubt Soleimani, the tip of the spear of Iran’s efforts to extend its influence in the region, was responsible for the deaths of many Americans, even if the tallies of most experts do not match the president’s numbers.
But if the president was truly concerned about the threat presented by Iran, battered and economically weakened by sanctions that were reimposed by Washington when Trump withdrew from the multi-party Iran nuclear desk, has he not made a tinder-box situation worse? Iran has already threatened “harsh revenge”.
Could it be the president was at least partly thinking about other matters, such as his impeachment trial in the Senate, and his battle for reelection in 2020? Even if Senate leader Mitch McConnell will manage to secure enough votes to keep Trump from being ousted, we know the president would rather not have a single Republican vote against him, fearful it could it count against him on election day in November.
Twenty years ago, Mark Weisbrot, co-founder of a progressive think, the Centre for Economic & Policy Research, was strongly critical of Clinton’s actions.
“President Clinton’s decision to bomb Iraq on the eve of the impeachment vote gives a whole new meaning to the word “transparency”,” he wrote in an op-ed article. “The circumstantial evidence of a connection between the two events is awfully strong: a vote by the House to impeach was almost certain, and this was his only way out.”
Weisbrot told The Independent Trump’s decision to bomb may have less do with impeachment – he said it was extremely unlikely sufficient Senate Republicans would vote to convict the president – but very much about 2020. He said George W Bush’s poll numbers jumped after he invaded Iraq in 2003, a military operation that probably resulted in the deaths of more than one million Iraqis.
“The only time Trump has got any love from large parts of the media is when he launched military strikes against Syria,” he said.
“From Trump’s point of view, this is his best chance of winning reelection. I don’t think he’s too worried about impeachment, though you could call it ‘insurance’.
Trump famously campaigned to remove US troops from the Middle East, yet he has just dispatched another 3.500.
The president may see his numbers take a bump in the short term – and he will certainly have the support of the US foreign policy and military establishment.
But things can rapidly go wrong. It was not so long before Bush, initially gung-ho about invading Iraq on cooked up intelligence, banned the media from filming the return of the coffins of US servicemen at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. It is not something any president wants broadcast on the airwaves, or plastered over social media
In truth, nobody knows how this will play out. Which makes what Donald Trump ordered on Thursday night so utterly perilous.