On December 16, 1998, President Bill Clinton announces he has ordered air strikes against Iraq because it refused to cooperate with United Nations (U.N.) weapons inspectors. Clinton’s decision did not have the support of key members of Congress, who accused Clinton of using the air strikes to direct attention away from ongoing impeachment proceedings against him. Just the day before, the House of Representatives had issued a report accusing Clinton of committing “high crimes and misdemeanors” related to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, in which Clinton had—and then lied about—an illicit sexual liaison with an intern in the Oval Office.
At the time of the air strikes, Iraq was resisting unfettered access by U.N. inspectors to its alleged operations to build weapons of mass destruction. Fearful of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s belligerence, and his penchant for using those weapons against his own people, the U.N. sent in weapons inspectors in 1997. After repeatedly refusing the inspectors access to certain sites, Clinton resorted to air strikes to compel Hussein to cooperate.
Many in Congress agreed with Republican majority leader Trent Lott that the timing of the air strikes was “suspect” and “cursory.” In their opinion, the air strikes were simply a ploy to direct the public’s attention away from the impeachment proceedings, and would ultimately prove futile in persuading Hussein to comply with the U.N.’s demands. Lott and his cohorts considered sustained bombardment of Iraq and the direct overthrow of Hussein the only way to end Iraq’s weapons program. Clinton, in a televised public address that day brushed aside the criticism, saying that the Iraqi president was wrong if he thought “…the serious debate [on impeachment] would distract Americans or weaken our resolve to face him down.” He emphasized that his decision to launch air strikes was critical to America’s vital interests and to the security of the world.
Ultimately, the American public’s attention, and that of the press, stayed fixated on Clinton and his battle to save his presidency. Both the air strikes and the impeachment threat proved anti-climactic. Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in February 1999 and the air strikes on Iraq failed to intimidate Hussein into allowing weapons inspectors full access to Iraq’s weapons facilities. Hussein’s continued refusal to allow U.N. inspectors full access ultimately led the next president, George W. Bush, to order a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.