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House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde has let it be known that he wants to narrow the House’s impeachment inquiry and keep it limited to the issues raised in the Starr report delivered to Congress in September. On a micro level this might not be a bad idea; prosecutors often have a tendency to overcharge, throwing as many charges as they can think of up on the wall and hoping one or two will stick. Rather than the 15 contained in the committee counsel’s brief before the impeachment inquiry vote, it might clarify matters to have two or three that are unambiguous, easily understood offenses.

In a larger sense, however, what now appears to be Mr. Hyde’s strategy is calamitous and a disservice to the republic. Impeachment, the only discipline constitutionally available to bring a wayward president to heel, is a quintessentially political process designed to correct or punish political malfeasance — offenses against the well being of the polity the president is sworn to protect and defend. Opinions will vary as to just what constitutes an offense against the health of the society, let alone which are so egregious as to warrant the drastic step — drastic in light of our history whatever the founders might have intended or some of us might have preferred — of impeachment.

But the Clinton record is so loaded with blatant abuses of power, of misuse of the powers of the office for narrow or personal gains that it would be almost farcical to take up the idea of impeachment without considering some of the political as well as the personal and (perhaps) legal malefactions. Other have noted that the cavalier treatment of the employees of the White House travel office, the gathering of 900 confidential FBI files, even the blatant lies to the American people are worthy of attention.

I think it would be useful, for example, to focus on the launching of U.S. missiles against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan following the torching of U.S. embassies in Africa as examples of multiple abuses of power of the very sort the founders had in mind when they prescribed impeachment as the only way (besides the ballot box, of course) to deal with presidents who have misused power so thoroughly as to have shredded the presumption of trust between them and the American people.

There’s the timing, for starters. The American missile attacks came within a few days of the famous Aug. 17 grand jury testimony followed by the ill-conceived and ultimately dishonest televised mea sorta culpa that evening — but several weeks after the bombings. Authorities had already been leaking speculation that the Saudi renegade Osama Bin Laden was behind the embassy bombings for weeks. The time for swift retaliation had already passed. Americans traditionally rally around a president who claims to have been forced by events to undertake military action overseas. Were the cruise missiles launched in part to divert attention from l’affaire Lewinsky and to make the liar in chief look more presidential and worthy of unquestioning support?

But it turns out that the timing was only the beginning of the unseemliness. Few Americans took it seriously when the Sudanese government claimed the chemical factory blitzed by U.S. cruise missiles was really a pharmaceutical factory rather than a front for terrorist bomb building. But when top Western European government officials and later respected American officials or former officials began to echo similar opinions, a situation worthy of the most serious concern developed. Could this target have been chosen either haphazardly or cynically?

Preliminary accounts of the decision process led to serious evidence that Mr. Clinton himself chose the Sudanese chemical factory, and some accounts even suggested that he chose it knowing full well that it wasn’t a terrorist bomb-making facility but something much more innocent. If true, such a cavalier attitude toward the deployment of American military forces is — or should be — utterly unforgivable.

Then came Seymour Hersh’s article in the New Yorker the week of Aug. 6, based on hundreds of interviews. If Hersh is correct — and whatever his shortcomings as a big-picture thinker he has shown many times that he is a pretty fair investigative reporter — all but one of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were kept out of the loop during the planning for the retaliatory raids. Although the FBI had been the most active American agency in the investigation of the embassy bombings, FBI Director Louis Freeh was kept out of the picture because Clinton “questions his political loyalty.” And Attorney General Janet Reno’s doubts as to whether the proof that Bin Laden was really behind the embassy bombings was convincing enough to justify military action were simply ignored.

The fact that the raids were conducted without even consulting Congress, let alone seeking Congress’ blessing to engage in what was unequivocally an act of war might not bother some people. Perhaps there are only a few of us left in this day and age who think the Constitution might mean what it says when it gives only Congress the power to declare war. But if even a portion of what has been suggested turns out to be true, it was precisely to prevent such reckless and irresponsible use of American military power by the president that such power was reserved to the legislative branch.

Consider what we have to face if most of what has been alleged about the missiles of August turns out to be accurate:

A president seeking to divert attention from a profoundly embarrassing personal/political crisis put U.S. military forces in potential danger and used hundreds of millions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money on targets whom his best-informed experts weren’t sure were the proper targets. He cynically targeted an innocent pharmaceutical plant even though he had solid reasons to believe it wasn’t the terrorist target his spinmeisters later said it was. And in order to facilitate his diversionary activity, he purposely kept the best-informed advisers in the dark, quite likely because he knew they might object to his plan, precisely because he knew as well as they did that it was not justified by the facts at hand.

Now I don’t know if the preceding paragraph is an accurate portrayal of how those missiles came to be launched; we (or at least I) don’t know enough to be certain. But given the evidence it is a plausible version. If it is even partially true, the missile strikes represent precisely the kind of egregious and irresponsible abuse of presidential power — the kind of underhanded assault on the legitimacy of the government enterprise and betrayal of citizen trust in the good will and decent intentions of their political and military leaders — that most of the founders would have defined as an eminently impeachable offense.

Politically, of course, it might be difficult to bring up the missiles of August because most of the Republicans who are inclined to think about impeachment tend to be knee-jerk supporters of any and all U.S. military activity overseas, no matter how ill-conceived or unjustifiable. But in terms of the larger issues at stake if we are to have any hope of preserving, maintaining or extending anything resembling a free republic, it is precisely the kind of abuse that should concern serious Americans. It is an offense against the health and well being of the polity.

And while most of the president’s defenders are more than disingenuous, they have latched onto a point worth considering. If we are to go so far as to impeach a president, it should be for something more politically relevant than lying about sex. Especially when so many politically relevant offenses are so apparent.

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