Superpowers, like individuals in love, never have to say they are sorry. At least, that seems to be the lesson of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s promiscuous use of force overseas.

The ongoing war against Serbia, which neither attacked nor threatened the U.S. or an ally, is merely the most recent example. Washington also 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 civilian lives.” 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 Gulf downed an Iranian airliner. Washington claimed that the plane was descending, outside of normal aviation flight paths, without emitting the usual civilian signals. It turned out that the government lied on every count. Washington later paid compensation to Iran, but never owned up to the American people.

The Clinton administration seems unwilling to confront its similar mistake in Sudan. When informed that the Washington, D.C. law firm of Akin Gump was pursuing a $20 million compensation claim for the Ashifa pharmaceutical plant destroyed by the Aug. 20 cruise-missile strike, one administration official responded: “Lawyers for Akin Gump have confused who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.”

But have they? Here, as with the Iranian airliner shootdown, 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. A soil sample supposedly contained the chemical EMPTA, which is used in the production of VX, a nerve gas, and supposedly has no nonmilitary purpose.

Alas, as before, everything Washington said turned out to be false. Those who visited the plant said it was not guarded. Even the administration abandoned its claim that bin Laden was behind the plant; officials shifted to the claim that 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 plant lacked the extra space, equipment, materials, and air-sealed doors necessary for chemical weapons work.

Most important, EMPTA is difficult to isolate in soil; EMPTA’s composition resembles that of several herbicides and pesticides, and could be confused with them in an imperfect test. Moreover, it turns out that there are legitimate, though limited, commercial uses of EMPTA. And in February, American chemists, brought in by the plant’s owners, failed to detect even trace elements of EMPTA.

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 of the 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 satisfied us.”

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 Clinton administration was right. But bombing other nations should be a last rather than first resort. And the timetable should not be hurried by political concerns.

Moreover, Washington has no right to be judge and jury in its own case. The Clinton administration’s refusal to defend its attack on the Ashifa plant gives credence to Mahdi Ibrahim Mohamed, Sudan’s ambassador to the U.S., who argued that the attack “was an act of lawlessness against Sudan.” In contrast, in 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan released confidential information to justify his administration’s 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 that taught 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 likely to 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.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.