Iraq stands in the wings, ever ready to take center stage in the Bush-Clinton race for the White House. It is an issue more than a country, in the American political context, a symbol of President Bush's greatest triumph as a world leader and, quite possibly, his greatest blunders in coddling Saddam Hussein before the Persian Gulf war and then not using sufficient force to overthrow the Iraqi dictator.
For Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, Iraq raises equally complicated questions. His party's lawmakers voted overwhelmingly against the use of force to turn back Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But he also chose as his vice presidential running mate a Senate Democrat (Al Gore) who backed the president. The 1992 Democratic platform asserts that "the United States must be prepared to use military force decisively to defend our vital interests." With the latest Iraqi crisis at boiling point, Mr. Clinton declared: "Let there be no mistake. If the United Nations decides to use force to insure Iraqi compliance with the cease-fire arrangements, I will support American participation in such action."
Let there also be no mistake that the domestic political implications of action -- or inaction -- in the face of Iraqi defiance of U.N. weapons inspectors will weigh heavily in the way these two presidential candidates handle this matter. It is not coincidental that Saddam, a ruthless power player, is trying to reassert his muscle at a moment when the Bush campaign is faltering badly.