On Saturday, members of the House of Representatives orated for hours in a passion-filled impeachment proceeding.
But while this historic debate over peccadilloes and perjury roared on, bombs rained on Iraq, and the very real question of a much different impeachable offense — one Thomas Jefferson and company actually worried about — went unexamined.
The nation's political and media elite forgot that the Constitution stipulates Congress, not the president, has the sole power to declare war.
It's as if we are witnessing events in some bizarre parallel universe where logic no longer applies.
"Nothing serious is being considered," howled Stanley Kutler, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin and an expert on Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. "What we're watching now is a cartoon."
Maybe its because we've ignored the issue for so long. The United States has not constitutionally declared war since joining the Allies against Germany, Italy and Japan in 1941.
In the half century since, tens of thousands of Americans have died in undeclared wars. There was the "police action" in Korea. There was the "conflict" in Vietnam, presided over by presidents Johnson and Nixon. Their abuses and lies (from the Gulf of Tonkin charade to secret bombings of Laos and Cambodia) prompted the 1973 War Powers Act, which established conditions under which a president can commit troops without Congress declaring war. But its constitutionality has never been tested.
As a result, in the past two decades, presidential actions that were clearly acts of war have continued to mount. President Carter had his aborted attempt to free hostages in Iran. President Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada. His successor, George Bush, took Panama.
Bush did receive approval to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1990, but even then Congress stopped short of declaring war.
And now we have Bill Clinton, launching air strikes on the Sudan and Afghanistan earlier this year, and his most recent cruise missile attack on Iraq last week.
And what do we debate? Not the legitimacy of economic sanctions that cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis. Not the wisdom of air strikes. Certainly not making war without legislative approval.
"Clinton's repeated attacks on Iraq and his bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan are impeachable," contends Michael Ratner, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights in Washington, D.C. "Clinton's attacks on Iraq are a subversion of our Constitution, our structure of government and treaty obligations."
"The fact that other presidents have done the same thing, that the precedent has been set, doesn't change the Constitution," adds Ratner.
In fact, recent events reinforce the wisdom of the Constitution. Had Clinton received congressional approval, cynics calling this a Wag the Dog diversion would have been quieted.
"The reason the framers wanted the president to go to Congress before going to war was that they were afraid someone in that office might make war for their own aggrandizement or own motivation," explains Ratner. "What they were afraid of is pretty relevant today."
Rather than clear the waters, the War Powers Act confuses the matter with loopholes for a president to launch attacks without notice or congressional approval. In the opinion of retired Admiral Eugene Carroll, the law itself is unconstitutional. The problem is, Congress has failed to meet its responsibility and challenge the act.
"If I was a member of the Supreme Court, I would have found against both Reagan (Grenada) and Bush (Panama) for creating an illegal state of war. Both were impeachable offenses. I don't think Congress is fulfilling its constitutional obligation," says Carroll, deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington advocacy group run by former senior military personnel.
Neither does Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois College of Law.
"The war powers clause of the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, expressly requires authorization by Congress before the President can engage in acts of war, unless there is a direct attack upon the United States," says Boyle. "Clinton has also violated the War Powers Resolution of 1973 that was enacted by Congress over President Nixon's veto in order to prevent a repetition of the Vietnam War scenario, where Americans were misled by repeated presidential lies, misrepresentations, deceits and falsehoods at every step of the way."
Moreover, says Boyle, "There has been a clear and consistent pattern by Clinton to use the military to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky affair
When the scandal broke in February, Clinton rushed aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf. The bombing of the Sudan and Afghanistan coincided with Lewinsky's grand jury testimony.
"And now, on the day before the president is impeached, he attacks Iraq."
"In my opinion, the Starr referral is very questionable, and the proceedings are highly partisan," says Boyle. "But the response to this by the commander in chief of the armed forces has been for him to abuse his power. ... It is reprehensible and, without a doubt, impeachable."
Sometimes you have to break a few laws to fund a dictator
It opens with grisly carnage as an Iraqi Scud missile slams into a temporary barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on Feb. 25, 1991. When the smoke clears, 28 American soldiers are dead, 99 are wounded. Many of them are reservists from Greensboro, PA, a small town near Pittsburgh.
What wasn't known when the flag-draped coffins were flown home was that a company based in the same part of western Pennsylvania had secretly sold the Iraqis machine-tool parts used to mill armaments.
With that tragic irony, Peter Mantius begins Shell Game, a detailed study of how the "secret U.S. policy of aiding Iraq during the 1980s" helped create the military monster we went to war with in 1990 and are still fighting today.Published in 1995 by St. Martin's Press, Shell Game is now out of print, though its message is as timely as ever.
Mantius describes in scrupulous detail how the Reagan and Bush administrations, "working hand in hand with private business, (ran) an 'off-the-books' foreign policy — a policy that would never be approved through public channels."
The truth eventually emerged, but has been largely ignored: Under the guise of U.S. government-backed loans to buy American farm goods, hundreds of millions of dollars were funneled through an Italian-owned bank in Atlanta and on to Baghdad to fuel the war with neighboring Iran.
As one Italian senator observed, "If every citizen of Iraq had eaten the eggs that had been officially exported, they would have had to eat 100 every day for three years."
And so eggs became bombs. And again the American public was left to pick up the bloody pieces of a failed covert policy.