BILL CLINTON'S BOMBING of Iraq just eight weeks before America goes to the polls--call it his September Surprise--illustrates the old adage that when the flag is unfurled, all reason is in the trumpet.

          The Cold War may be over, but its most important legacy--the behemoth that is the national security state--is alive and well. Once again, the United States has chosen military means to try to resolve what is essentially a political problem. And once again, this has taken place without sparking any real debate in this country. Result: US voters, knowing nothing of the background to the current crisis, approved the air strikes by a 4-1 margin, while the jingos of the right, largely muted by these poll numbers, emitted a few simplistic squeaks for... more!

          Let's be clear about one thing. This latest American strike against Saddam Hussein has little to do with the Kurds, about whom the White House could not care less, there being no bloc of Kurd votes to court. As CBS's Eric Engberg pointed out in one of the few substantive criticisms to make the network news, the US torpedoed its own brokering of a ceasefire between the warring Kurdish factions when it refused to come up with a million dollars that had been promised to oversee and implement it. "Budgetary restraints," the Kurds were told, didn't permit it. That sent them a signal that the US. wasn't terribly interested. And not for the first time: Who could forget George Bush's call to the Kurds to rise against Saddam, and his abandonment of them when they did? So one faction turned to Iran for support, driving the other into a pact with Devil Saddam.

          The struggle in northern Iraq between the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is essentially a clan war about money and the power that money can buy. The embargo imposed on Iraq has created a huge black market traffic on top of a lucrative, massive drug trade; control of Iraq's northern borders means control of profits from both. Only the CIA, still nursing Cold War visions of a Kiplingesque Great Game, was gullible enough to believe that these traders in poppies and penicillin could overthrow Saddam. The sanguineous Iraqi dictator, whose state police terror has foiled every coup attempt and murderously purged the Iraqi military of dissidents real or potential, is today safer from such plottings than he was before the Gulf War.

          By unilaterally bombing Iraq without UN approval, Clinton--a serial violator of our own War Powers Act--has undermined the already-weakened force of international law. Worse--and this is America's great strategic mistake--the bombings fuel Islamic anger at Washington and the West, already at fever pitch as a result of the dismemberment of Bosnia by the Dayton Accords, which, in decreeing the wholesale transfer of populations, effectively ratified ethnic cleansing. And Clinton's election-year refusal to use the billions the US gives to Israel as leverage to put a brake on the new Likkud government's revanchism hardens the perception of an anti-Islamic American foreign policy.

          With the exception of Haiti, Clinton's incoherent and ad hoc foreign-policy-by-press-release is a mess. He flew to Northern Ireland to declare peace prematurely; British intransigence in refusing all-party peace talks has sparked new violence and left the negotiations in shambles. Russia's war on Chechnya, which supposedly was to be ended as the price of Clinton's support for Boris Yeltsin's reelection, has abated only slightly as Yeltsin undermines the peace deal brokered by his own emissary, Alexander Lebed. And the farcical Bosnian elections, sullied by rampant political thuggery, will result in the victory of ultra-nationalists bent on making a quick end of the evanescent Bosnian-Croatian Federation created on paper at Dayton.

          Clinton's declaration of "victory" over Saddam after the destruction of a few radar stations is nothing but campaign piffle. The only winners here are Teheran and the Pentagon, which will now see its budget increased by Congress with not a word of protest from a president still trying to erase his reputation as a draft-dodger. Those cruise missiles were really aimed not at Saddam, but at Bob Dole--and if the polls are to be believed, they found their target.

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