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Asked to provide a character reference following President Clinton's decision to strike at terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, the public first thought of a movie, "Wag The Dog," a fictional story about White House aides and a Hollywood producer who divert public attention from a presidential sex scandal to a phony war with Albania. That's the problem with character. If you are thought not to have any, then your credibility suffers.

Yes, virtually everyone agrees, the United States should have retaliated against those whom our intelligence agencies tell us are responsible for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And, yes, the President's motivation for doing so now is suspect. It is possible to simultaneously hold both views.

An unnamed White House aide was quoted by one network as saying his blood boiled because of questions raised about the president's motive for a military strike, coming less than 72 hours after Clinton's "personal responsibility" speech. But what argument would the aide use to persuade us the president should be believed, when he has admitted to lying for seven months?

Call it Chicken Little syndrome. The president lies, not only about sex, but about so many other things -- Social Security, health care, the travel-office firings, the purloined FBI files, cattle futures, the era of big government being over, and more. Then he pleads to be believed when he and his minions tell us that the Monica Lewinsky saga had nothing to do with his decision to hit terrorist camps.

Americans are torn between a natural inclination to rally behind their president at such a moment and the feeling of betrayal from hearing him admit he has been lying about his relationship with Lewinsky for seven months. What happens when the sky really falls? How will we know until we're hit on the head, perhaps by a terrorist missile?

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., was one of the few brave enough to say what others were thinking. Coats said he thought about the cruise-missile attack "long and hard," and he concluded that "once the president has deceived the American people and broken the bond of trust, one wonders about his motives."

That is the point made by a number of America's critics around the world. How can this president be believed? How can we know whether his resolve is genuine or just more political manipulation? We want to believe him because he is the president, but why should we?

Fyodor Dostoevsky eloquently described the effects of a congenital liar in "The Brothers Karamazov." He wrote, "Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect, he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love, he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself . . . "

If an effective war is to be waged against terrorism, it must be fought under the leadership of a president whose resolve, commitment, integrity and credibility are believed by those who would do America harm. A compromised president who has become fodder for late-night comedians is not such a man. It is why calls for his resignation or impeachment will increase.

Independent Counsel Ken Starr's report to the House will likely be about far more than sex. At that time President Clinton's nakedness will be revealed to the world as increasing numbers of Democrats recall a chant used by Clinton and Al Gore during the 1992 campaign about the Bush administration: "It's time for them to go."

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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