Frame Game

Escape Artists

Escape Artists Bill Clinton and Saddam Hussein share the same bag of tricks. By William Saletan
(posted Wednesday, Dec. 2, 1998)

The prevailing wisdom about President Clinton’s political fate in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky affair is that he certainly won’t be removed from office, probably won’t be impeached by the House, and may well escape punishment altogether. It seems unfair to many people that Clinton, having behaved despicably and then lied to everyone about it, defeated the investigation of this misconduct by evading, obstructing, and demonizing Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. But while Clinton may escape justice at home, he faces a cruel sentence abroad: He must endure, at the hands of Saddam Hussein, the same tactics he used against Starr. Of course, Saddam has long been a master of these tactics. But there is poetic injustice in the uncanny resemblance between his 10 point strategy against U.N. weapons inspection chief Richard Butler and Clinton’s campaign against Starr and the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” 1. Belittle the subject. Clinton’s henchmen dismissed Starr’s investigation as a detour into sexual matters that were nobody’s business. Iraq dismissed Butler’s recent requests for documents as a detour into matters that “have no relations to the disarmament procedures.” Clinton’s spinners said Starr had no grounds to pursue evidence of his misconduct. Iraq says Butler has no “technical or scientific grounds” to demand that Iraq relinquish specific evidence about its missile program.

9 Imperil innocent people and blame it on the investigators. By withholding the truth and deceiving his aides, Clinton exposed them to humiliation, subpoenas, and huge legal fees. Meanwhile, the White House blamed the consequences on Starr. Likewise, by withholding the truth about his weapons, Saddam has exposed his countrymen to economic sanctions. He has also methodically placed civilians in the way of likely military strikes. All the while, he has staged Clintonesque photo-ops and mass demonstrations to guilt trip the United Nations and blame the United States for starving Iraqi children.
10. Accuse the investigator of framing you. Clinton’s defenders accuse Starr’s prosecutors of pressuring witnesses such as Betty Currie and Susan McDougal to testify falsely against Clinton. Iraq accuses the weapons inspectors and the United States of planting nerve gas on an Iraqi missile warhead in order to implicate Iraq falsely in weapons violations. Iraq’s evidence for this charge was no better than the evidence against Starr. But it succeeded just as well in changing the subject.
Iraq’s image war against Butler and the United States hasn’t matched the success of Clinton’s image war against Starr, but it has produced considerable gains. Having obliged Clinton to call off his Nov. 14 military strike, Iraq continues to thwart the inspectors. And on Nov. 24, when Butler briefed the U.N. Security Council about Iraq’s noncompliance, Russian and Chinese representatives questioned the relevance of his document requests and indicated that they would review the facts independently. The charges against Butler are a sham, of course. It’s too bad Clinton lacks the authority to say so.
Recent “Frame Games”

  • Blinkmanship“: Was Clinton’s decision to call off the Iraq attack cowardly or courageous? (posted Wednesday, Nov. 18, 1998)
  • Cannibalism“: The House coup is taking the GOP in the wrong direction. (posted Tuesday, Nov. 10, 1998)

Illustrations by Peter Kuper.