OXFORD, OHIO–Perhaps the most widely voiced criticism of the ongoing presidential peep show, now playing as a stopless congressional impeachment inquiry, is that by focusing all of America's political and media interest on Bill Clinton's arguably private matters, we are failing to pay attention to "more important" issues of the day.
Because it is Clinton supporters who typically voice this argument, there is little appreciation for just how much the president may be benefiting from the public's gaze being firmly fixed on all the curves and contours of l'affaire Lewinsky.
CONSIDER, for instance, the relative lack of scrutiny accorded the Aug. 20 cruise-missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan that President Clinton ordered in retaliation for earlier bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
The specific locations, a "terrorist university" in Afghanistan and a Shifa Pharmaceuticals Industries plant in Sudan, were chosen because of links to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born terrorist widely believed to have masterminded the embassy bombings.
However, despite the president's assurances that the two sites were attacked "because of the imminent threat they presented to our national security," subsequent reports suggest a pattern of official obfuscation that calls to mind Clinton's cagey grand-jury testimony.
WHILE THERE IS broad agreement that the Afghan camp was both a training facility for terrorists and had direct ties to bin Laden, there is very little consensus regarding what the Shifa plant did or did not produce. (Whether either posed an "imminent threat to our national security" necessitating immediate action is another question.)
"Our forces...attacked a factory in Sudan associated with the bin Laden network. The factory was involved in the production of materials for chemical weapons," explained the president after the bombing.
Administration officials claimed that a soil sample taken by the CIA from outside the plant revealed traces of EMPTA, a chemical they said could be used only in the production of VX nerve gas.
HOWEVER, reports from other sources, including some in the American intelligence community, quickly undercut such seeming certitude. The German ambassador to Sudan, who had a working knowledge of the plant, challenged the Clinton administration's assertions.
Administration depictions of the factory as secretive and highly guarded turned out to be completely inaccurate.
The Los Angeles Times cited experts who claimed that EMPTA has multiple uses and apparent traces could actually come from a number of other sources.
The London Observer reported the factory lacked airlocks and other necessary chambers for chemical weapons.
THE ADMINISTRATION'S own actions and admissions raise even more disturbing questions.
Despite the Sudanese government's call for an international inquiry and its insistence that the factory produced about 50 percent of the country's legitimate drugs, the Clinton administration has refused to allow an independent test of the CIA soil sample.
U.S. officials have conceded that despite claims to good intelligence on the factory, they did not even know who owned it until after the bombing. (They now claim that the owner, Salih Idris, a Sudanese expatriate living in Saudi Arabia, has links to bin Laden. Idris denies any connection.)