Will partisan rancor immobilize Washington?

Clinton-Congress tensions may imperil America's future - at home and abroad.

Washington's turmoil over this week's astounding juxtaposition of war and impeachment hints at how President Clinton's problems may have affected the ability of the US government to function.

That doesn't mean the US has been plunged into a crisis of confidence. Tempers have cooled a bit since the initial surprise of the attack on Iraq, and Republicans have lined up behind military action launched by a president they still intend to impeach.

But the lack of trust revealed by some GOP lawmakers' questioning of Mr. Clinton's motives is a dire portent. Justified or not, such skepticism could make it difficult for the nation's lawmakers and its chief executive to produce the sustained cooperation needed to address major domestic issues.

And abroad, it means the US might face emboldened challengers from Kosovo to Baghdad. "The potential danger is that some enemy will see this as the inability of the US to stay in there for the long term," says James Pfiffner, a professor of government at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

If nothing else, recent events have ensured that Washington will remember 1998 as The Year The News Stole Christmas.

The snowballing House GOP move toward impeachment, scheduled to culminate with debate starting today and a vote Saturday, had already interrupted holiday planning for everyone from Hill aides to network camera people. Then came the strikes against Iraq, and suddenly a crisis of life and death elbowed aside the question of Clinton's political future.

Not since Vietnam has there been such open questioning of a president's motives in foreign policy. While many GOP leaders backed Clinton, a number, led by Senate majority leader Trent Lott, all but charged that the attacks were timed to delay impeachment.

That someone as high-ranking as Senator Lott would give voice to such sentiments was shocking to many here, who are used to a long-standing tradition that questioning the deployment of US force while troops are in the field undermines their morale. It led to some overheated rhetoric in response: Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey charged that Lott's remarks were "close to betrayal."

A number of factors likely caused this mutual explosion of tempers, say experts.

One is GOP suspicion. Many Republicans now believe Clinton is a man who cannot be trusted. They appear to view his hairsplitting legal defense against impeachment charges as evidence of the nature of his personality, not just a specific response to specific charges.

Another is GOP defensiveness. Clinton has repeatedly turned Republican initiatives to his advantage - as when he benefited politically from government shutdowns in late 1996 and early '97. Some Republicans are just worried he's going to pull off a Houdini-like escape from impeachment, despite the votes they've piled up.

A third is simply a split on policy. The US effort to contain Saddam Hussein has been a long and frustrating one. Some in the GOP support more active methods, such as arming and training Iraqi opposition groups.

This last point, taken with the objections of Russia and China to the US strikes, means the underpinnings of the aggressive American stance against Saddam may be eroding.

"We cannot in all honesty claim that we initiated these raids after building consensus internally or externally, and that is going to come back to haunt us," says Ruhi Ramazani, a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

For Clinton, the ramifications of the Washington reaction to the Iraqi strike are mixed.

They demonstrate that he still wields considerable power. At the point of his greatest domestic crisis, he has wrestled with age-old problems in the Mideast and ordered the largest military action of his presidency against a regime that's bedeviled the US for years.

The drive to impeachment has not paralyzed the nation in foreign policy, at least - the area where presidents have the greatest unilateral power. Perhaps a vote to impeach would thus not be such a momentous thing, after all. Perhaps, through his actions and continued popularity, Clinton is redefining impeachment almost as a form of censure.

But this calculation is based on the widely held assumption that the Senate will not vote to remove Clinton from office. And for the president, the suspicion voiced by the leader of the Senate GOP is not a good sign. It is a reminder that in any Senate trial he will face formidable opponents, and that the result in any such action is not a foregone conclusion.

Not since Vietnam has there been such open questioning of a president's motives.

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