When President Bill Clinton ordered missile strikes on suspected al-Qaeda camps in Sudan and Afghanistan, one stated goal was to knock out an obscure terrorist named Osama bin Laden.
The attacks, on Aug. 20, 1998, occurred just three days after Clinton testified in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The president would be impeached by the end of the year, though the Senate lacked the required votes to boot him from office.
Critics would say this episode shows a president will do just about anything to hold on to the White House when the ax of impeachment begins to swing. A more charitable view would be that the missile attacks, which ended up boosting bin Laden’s popularity in the Middle East, show that the world keeps turning as Washington chases its own tail during an impeachment crisis.
Today, we are witness to a new impeachment drama regarding President Donald Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. A summary of this conservation doesn’t reveal a direct threat to revoke aid, but it seems to depict a mafia-like “you have a lovely family” air to the president’s request to investigate a political rival. In the end, it’s unclear if this is enough to annul an election, especially if the next one is 13 months away. The best way to remove a president is the ballot box.
What is obvious is this: In 1998, a Muslim extremist didn’t sit around waiting for a resolution of Clinton’s troubles. Today, the wider world won’t be frozen in amber while a House committee — or make that multiple committees — debates the real meaning of banal statements like, “We do a lot for Ukraine.”
One day before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry, military analysts confirmed that the Russian Navy will be the first in the world to deploy an operational hypersonic missile system. These weapons can fly at speeds of up to 6,000 miles an hour, approaching a target from a low trajectory or from a steep dive.
A weapon of this type creates a new vulnerability for U.S. aircraft carriers. Under some scenarios, a surface ship could have 20 seconds to down an incoming missile, according to an analysis in Popular Mechanics. It brings into sharp focus the risk of the United States losing its technological edge.
An impeachment drama makes for riveting TV, but much what we see comes as no surprise. A president’s clumsy interaction with a foreign leader. The Democrats’ eager willingness to nullify the results of a national election. The national press corps’ gleeful cheerleading.
What we won’t see are obscure threats that metastasize beneath the surface of our political dysfunction. In the coming months, that’s the truly scary thought as this crisis unfolds.