The Politics of Iraq

July 25, 1992

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.

For Mr. Bush, the Iraq standoff raises excruciating questions. In going to war again, he would be flashing his strong card as a seasoned statesman running against a parochial governor. But he would also be opening himself to charges that he is taking action primarily to resuscitate his campaign. Even more, he would be spotlighting an issue in which his reputation has deteriorated with every revelation of U.S. aid and encouragement to Iraq during the Reagan-Bush years.

This, however, does not mean the Clinton-Gore Democrats would welcome such a foreign policy focus. On the contrary, the Democratic National Convention in New York at mid-month was notable for the way in which it downplayed foreign affairs. In his 54-minute acceptance speech, Governor Clinton devoted exactly one minute to the subject. His emphasis -- the emphasis of practically all Democratic orators -- was on the sagging U.S. economy. The recession (not Iraq) is the key reason why Mr. Clinton in an extraordinary fortnight has jumped from No. 3 in a three-man race (including Ross Perot) to a commanding lead in a two-man race against President Bush.

The current solidarity between Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton in responding to Saddam's provocations is welcome. We hope it lasts. If the Baghdad bully is allowed to stare down the world community at this juncture, the cause of collective action to preserve the peace will be badly set back. This is a matter that vastly transcends domestic politics.

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