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Western Press Review: Clinton Strikes Back

By Joel Blocker/Dora Slaba

Prague, 21 August 1989 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary focuses squarely on yesterday's surprise missile strikes by the U.S. aimed at terrorist-related sites in Afghanistan and the Sudan. President Bill Clinton told Americans last night: "Our target was terror. Our strike at the network of radical groups affiliated with and funded by Osama Bin Laden, perhaps the most pre-eminent organizer and financier of international terrorism in the world today." Editorials, commentaries and analyses in both the U.S. and West European press assess the importance of Washington's action.

NEW YORK TIMES: Clinton needs to take extra care to reassure the country that the attacks were not timed to help repair his shaken presidency

The New York Times says in an editorial today: "The United States has every right to attack suspected terrorists if there is credible evidence showing that they were involved in attacks against U.S. citizens or were planning such attacks. That seems to be the case in the missile attacks ordered by President Clinton in the Sudan and Afghanistan....But since those attacks were ordered from a White House weakened by scandal, Clinton needs to take extra care to reassure the country that the attacks were not timed to help repair his shaken presidency." The editorial continues: " Intelligence officials reported Thursday that they had collected convincing information from numerous sources that the terrorist organization of Osama bin Laden was responsible for the deadly truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania earlier this month (Aug. 8). Bin Laden is a Saudi multi-millionaire reportedly turned terrorist who has openly threatened to attack Americans anywhere in the world."

The N.Y. Times adds: " Retaliating against terrorists may invite further terrorism, but effective military strikes can at least temporarily hinder training and planning by terrorist groups. Certainly, U.S. inaction in the face of hard evidence of terrorist activities would be irresponsible." And the editorial concludes: "The picture of Clinton striding purposefully back into the White House Thursday as commander in chief could not help but supplant the image of an emotionally wounded first family departing (for vacation on Martha's Vineyard Island) on Tuesday. Clinton can dispel any lingering doubts about his motivation by providing the House and Senate intelligence committees with a complete briefing on the bin Ladeni information and instructing his aides to fill out the partial accounts they have given about the raids."

ARIZONA REPUBLIC: The fates handed him an opportunity for some redemption

A regional U.S. newspaper, the Arizona Republic, is more critical of Clinton's action in its editorial. The paper writes: "The pundits proclaimed the Clinton Administration was on the ropes, the President about to collapse in the far corner of the ring. But never --ever-- count Bill Clinton out....The fates handed him an opportunity for some redemption in presidential leadership, and he did not disappoint." The editorial continues: "The terrorists' mission was murder, said the President, and their history is bloody. So Clinton did the correct but difficult thing. Difficult? It is always difficult to order military action, if only because of the possibility for collateral damage to innocents. But this time, the President had the extra burden of the "Wag-the-Dog" (a recent U.S. film) syndrome -- a skeptical public cynically wondering whether this action was a calculated diversion to send the public's attention skipping off to an international crisis and away from (Monica Lewinsky's) DNA-stained dress." It adds: "The President, whom we now know to be a dishonest man, created this cynicism with his own actions. But he is, after all, the President. And yesterday, at long last, he acted presidential, striking against terrorism with stealth and finesse."

U.S. COX NEWS SERVICE: This invites cynicism about Bill Clinton's motives

A commentary by columnist Tom Baxter for the U.S.' Cox News Service also alludes to the film "Wag-the-Dog." Its says: "After seeing a movie about a president who stages a 'war' to deflect attention from a sex scandal, a lot of people had to do a double take when news hit of strikes on suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan. To say this invites cynicism about Bill Clinton's motives could not, obviously, be more of an understatement. Republicans such as Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana quickly questioned the motives of the attack." Baxter goes on to say: "Yet it's a safe bet many Americans, enough to carry the weight of public opinion, will for at least a short time put aside their quite reasonable misgivings and support the action, as did House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Call it patriotic denial. A great national chat session will, of course, commence over whether the deepening Monica Lewinsky crisis was a factor in the decision to strike." He concludes: "The war against terrorism will be 'a long, ongoing struggle,' the President said, and one in which the United States will 'remain a target.' Presidents have made sober pronouncements about terrorism before, but these words represent a new realism... about what the country will have to endure. It will be a long struggle, longer than the term of this President, however long that turns out to be."

GUARDIAN: This is not a Hollywood script

In its editorial, Britain's Left-of-Center Guardian newspaper is also wary of President Clinton's motives for the missile strikes. The paper writes "The cynics will say that President Clinton has done what all American leaders do when facing a personal political crisis at home -- create a foreign-policy diversion....But," the Guardian adds, "this is not a Hollywood script....This is a modern post-Cold War conflict." The paper goes on: "The table was set by the terrorists on August 7 when the summer quiet was shattered in Kenya and Tanzania by two bombs which killed 257 people....Under the U.S. doctrine that terrorism, wherever it takes place, must be met with fire, President Clinton will maintain he had very little choice but to react in this way." The Guardian concludes: "For Mr. Clinton, the firm action against those who have taken American and other lives is a clear way of demonstrating that the institution of the U.S. presidency is about much more than the first DNA test taken at the White House."

FINANCIAL TIMES: This is a gamble of considerable proportions

The British Financial Times, too, begins its editorial on a questioning note: "Inevitably," the paper writes, "there are today more questions than answers about the background to and outcome of yesterday's U.S. attacks on suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan." The editorial continues: "Two things can already be said with certainty: First, if the U.S. is indeed in possession of (what Clinton called) 'convincing evidence' that the terrorists in its sights were behind the East African bombings...and were planning more such outrages in coming weeks, it was right to take action. Second, even if the terrorist evidence is less than compelling, yesterday's action will prove overwhelmingly popular with the American people at a time of growing cynicism towards the presidency. In that sense, it has a strong domestic political logic." The Financial adds: "There can be no denying that this is a gamble of considerable proportions for President Clinton....The risks are obvious: of something going militarily wrong; of a political backlash in the Islamic world; of an escalating war in which many more lives are lost. The only question," the paper concludes, "is whether the threat posed by the terrorists to U.S. and international security is large and imminent enough to justify running such risks."

IRISH TIMES: The action was a calculated gamble but the risks are high

Under the heading "Clinton Sends the Missiles," the Irish Times writes in its editorial: "The strikes...were motivated 'solely to protect American people,' the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mr. William Cohen, stressed. Yet, the strikes may, if anything, significantly increase the risk to the lives of Americans and others. The action was a calculated gamble but the risks are high. If it provokes swift retaliation, the gamble may fail with tragic consequences." The paper argues: "Mr. Cohen denies it, but the action may be simple retaliation rather than a genuine pre-emptive strike against (bin Laden's) movement, planned in detail to clip its wings. The action will undoubtedly manifest a feel-good factor among U.S. military and much of the U.S. public, cheered that the empire struck back."

The editorial goes on: "The final decision, as Mr. Cohen pointed out, rested with the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. forces, President Clinton. He will have been very conscious, through the last two days, that support for him within his own party is plunging in the aftermath of his testimony and speech on Monday, and he will have been conscious too that Ms. Lewinsky's additional evidence (yesterday to the grand jury) was guaranteed to dominate the U.S. media." The paper sums up: "It is fortuitous indeed for Mr. Clinton that his decision to send in the missiles will push (independent counsel Kenneth) Starr and Ms. Lewinsky off the front pages and offer distraction to the American public and its politicians."

LIBERATION: The farce has not yet come to its end

Several French newspapers today also suggest the missile strikes might have been intended, at least partially, as a diversion of a sort. The Left-of-Center daily Liberation says that many in the world will be convinced that the raids, (said to be) in retribution for bombings at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, were intended, in the paper's words, "to bury once and for all the Monica Lewinsky affair and hush up prosecutor Kenneth Star." Liberation's comment continued: "The farce has not yet come to its end, and history will present the bill to Americans: a weakened (and ridiculed) president whose pronouncements have dramatically been devalued -- a heavy price to pay for mixing womanizing with state matters."

FRANCE-SOIR: This 'coup' is a timely one for Clinton

The mass-circulation France-Soir says: "It must be acknowledged that this 'coup' is a timely one for a perfect tool for diversion." But France-Soir also says that the West is apparently closing ranks behind the United States and backing the missile strikes.

LE PARISIEN: Clinton yesterday regained his stature

The tabloid Le Parisien writes: "Humiliated and crestfallen after his television confession, Clinton yesterday regained his stature as a tough commander-in-chief defending his country against international terrorism."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Bin Laden has now received his first important international lesson...

In Germany, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung says in a editorial: "Bin Laden, who has declared a Holy War on the United States, has now received his first important international lesson...In the aftermath of the missile strike, it must be clear to (bin) Laden and his bomb planters that to intimidate the U.S.A. is a dangerous game." The paper goes on: "But there is some question as to whether the intended targets were actually hit. Apparently, U.S. satellites were aware of the (terrorists') Afghan camp sites. But we still do not know whether the top terrorists, veiled in secret, were in the camp and, if so, whether they lost their lives. Thus, it is far from clear whether the attack has succeeded in destroying the terrorist group."

The SZ editorial adds: "Even more important than the question whether (bin) Lade and, possibly, many of his fighters, were killed was the U.S. President's message concerning the military attack: Nobody goes unpunished when meddling with America. In passing on this message, Bill Clinton was intent, not least because of the Lewinsky affair, on appearing as a man of action before the American public and the rest of the world. He must also have been aware that the Muslim extremists will not give up their fanatical Holy War because of the attack. We all have to reckon with the possibility of new attacks from Osama and his associates."

LUEBECKER NACHRICHTEN: Bin Laden and his aides must be stopped at all costs

In northern Germany, the Luebecker Nachrichten writes about the Islamic terrorist leader in its comment: "Bin Laden, a son of a Saudi (Arabian) multi-millionaire, has used his private wealth to build world-wide terror, with bases in Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh, (under the name) 'The Islamic World Front for the Holy War against Jews and Crusaders'." The paper adds: "This man could be straight out of a James Bond film. He is rich and unscrupulous." And it warns: "He and his aides must be stopped at all costs. The governments that help bin Laden must be isolated and punished. It should be made quite clear that bin Laden is no representative of (moderate) Islamic countries. Bin Laden's threats are not aimed at the U.S. alone. The threats are pointed at the free co-existence of (all) peoples."