Superpowers, like individuals in love, never have to say they are sorry. At least, that seems to be the lesson of President Bill Clinton's promiscuous use of force overseas.
The ongoing war against Serbia, which neither attacked nor threatened the United States or an ally, is merely the most recent example. Washingtonalso continues to conduct regular strikes on Iraq.
After one missile went awry, landing in a residential neighborhood and killing a dozen people, the senior U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf,Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, explained: ''We deeply regret any loss of civilianlives.'' But he blamed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for the deaths.
Nor was this the first time that America demonstrated that it can bomb or shoot with impunity. In 1985, a U.S. ship on patrol in the Persian Gulfdowned an Iranian airliner.
Washington claimed that the plane was descending, outside of normalaviation flight paths, without emitting the usual civilian signals. It turned outthat the government lied on every count. Washington later paid compensation toIran, but never owned up to the American people.
The Clinton administration seems unwilling to confront its similarmistake in the Sudan. When informed that the Washington law firm of Akin Gump waspursuing a $20 million compensation claim for the Ashifa pharmaceutical plantdestroyed by the Aug. 20, 1998, cruise missile strike, one administration official responded: ''Lawyers for Akin Gump have confused who the good guys are andwho the bad guys are.''
But have they? Here, as with the Iranian airliner shoot-down, Washington offered a host of allegations. The plant, said to produce nerve gas, was supposedly heavily guarded, run by the Sudanese military, financed by Saudi Arabian terrorist Osama bin Laden, and produced no commercial products. Asoil sample supposedly contained the chemical EMPTA, which is used in theproduction of VX, a nerve gas, and supposedly has no nonmilitary purpose.
Alas, as before, everything Washington said turned out to be false. Thosewho visited the plant said it was not guarded. Even the administrationabandoned its claim that bin Laden was behind the plant; officials shifted to the claimthat the Sudanese military or Iraq was involved. But there was no evidence that Khartoum was in charge and the alleged Iraqi connection seems limited and innocuous. Sudanese dissidents said the new plant owner is nonpolitical.
It turns out the Ashifa factory did make pharmaceuticals and veterinary drugs. Moreover, architects, engineers and suppliers say that the plantlacked the extra space, equipment, materials and air-sealed doors necessary for chemical weapons work.
Most important, EMPTA is difficult to isolate in soil; EMPTA'scomposition resembles that of several herbicides and pesticides, and could be confusedwith them in an imperfect test. Moreover, it turns out that there arelegitimate, though limited, commercial uses of EMPTA. And in February, Americanchemists, brought in by the plant's owners, failed to detect even trace elements ofEMPTA.
Yet the administration refuses to accept any outside inquiry. Although Washington demanded an international review of past allegations of Serb atrocities in Kosovo, it rejected Sudan's offer to open what remained ofthe plant for inspection.
National Security Adviser Sandy Berger declared: ''We had overwhelming grounds to strike this facility.'' State Department spokesman James Foley explained that ''we believe we have convincing evidence that satisfiedus.''
Not that even every administration official was so certain. One unnamed official told The New York Times: ''As an American citizen, I am not convinced of the evidence.''
Maybe the administration was right. But bombing other nations should be a last rather than first resort. And the timetable should not be hurried by political events.
Moreover, Washington has no right to be judge and jury in its own case.The Clinton administration's refusal to defend its action gives credence toMahdi Ibrahim Mohamed, Sudan's ambassador to the United States, who argued thatthe attack ''was an act of lawlessness against the Sudan.''
In contrast, in 1986, President Reagan released confidential informationto justify the assault on Libya as retaliation against the bombing of a U.S.disco in Berlin.
Today, in the midst of a much more serious bombing campaign, the Ashifa strike lies largely forgotten. Yet it was instances like Sudan, whichtaught the administration that it needn't apologize for either its arrogance or its mistakes.
Unfortunately, the resulting whirlwind may consume more than just small nations like Serbia: A government willing to act lawlessly abroad is likelyto do the same at home.
America is the world's only superpower. But if it also wants to be the world's moral leader, it must be willing to admit when it is wrong.