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As we go to war...

December 18, 1998

Did President Clinton launch air strikes against Iraq to deflect attention from the impeachment process? Or did Saddam Hussein take advantage of the president's troubles to withhold cooperation (again) from U.N. weapons inspectors? The fact that we and other more astute political observers can't say for sure is scary and sad at the same time.

It is frightening not to know whether the nation's leader can be trusted on matters as grave as war, and sad that the fate of so many young people in America's armed forces depends on a man who's proven himself to be so undependable.

What is known is that U.N. weapons inspectors have become increasingly frustrated over the Iraqis' refusal to cooperate. The embargo that was supposed to bring Iraq under control has done no such thing; Saddam has shipped out enough oil to build a new series of lavish presidential palaces. The peasants may be hurting, but the dictator and his cronies aren't. And those who doubt that Saddam is still dangerous should remember that this is the leader who used poison gas to quell a rebellion by Iraq's Kurdish population.

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It's too late to lament the fact that former president George Bush didn't use the 1991 Gulf War to oust Saddam, who doesn't understand mercy or the diplomatic considerations that led Bush to call off the war once the Iraqi army had been routed.

But all of these matters are serious enough to debunk the idea that the president's unwise dalliance is somehow a private matter. Americans elect a president with the expectation that he or she will be ready, day or night, to deal with whatever crisis comes up. They do not expect the incumbents to impair their ability to deal with those crises by drinking excessively, doing drugs or entering into adulterous liaisons that create the potential for blackmail, or worse.

When these matters become public, we said that the honorable thing would be for the president to resign. Had he done so, citizens might be more certain that the sacrifices their sons and daughters in uniform are about to make are for the nation, and not just to preserve one man's political viability.

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