WASHINGTON -- In President Bush's handling of the latest mini-crisis in Iraq, Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton and Democratic congressional leaders are expressing firm support. House Speaker Thomas Foley, for one, says he doesn't see "any evidence" that the president, sinking in the polls, is playing domestic politics with the situation in this election year.
Nevertheless, with Saddam Hussein finally accepting U.N. inspection of a Baghdad ministry suspected of housing papers on development of weapons of mass destruction, the president has wasted no time crowing about how he has once again faced down the "Baghdad bully" who "caved in" to his resolute posture.
The episode has provided an opportunity to bring foreign policy back into a presidential campaign in which the focus all year on domestic policy has sent the president reeling. Up to now, the Bush campaign has been reluctant to play the foreign-policy political card because the long-term results of Bush's short-term triumph in Operation Desert Storm have given him little to brag about.
Indeed, Saddam Hussein's continued reign in Baghdad, and his repeated violations of provisions of the U.N. resolution that brought about a cease-fire in the Persian Gulf War, have been an embarrassing reminder of Bush's decision to end the fighting without driving the Iraqi strongman from power.
But the political reality of Bush's plight at home has clearly persuaded him to seize this obvious chance to shift voter attention to the one area of presidential responsibility in which he has received the highest grades overall, and in which Clinton has such sparse credentials.
Having pledged not to attack Clinton on the issue of personal character, the president instead is asking voters to consider which of the party nominees can be trusted in the clutch. When the White House phone rings late at night asking for instructions on "how we should stand up to a bully halfway around the world," Bush intoned to an audience in Michigan the other day, "the American people need to know that the man who answers that phone has the experience, the seasoning, the guts to do the right thing. I believe I have proved I am that man."
That is powerful stuff, especially when running against an opponent whose elected responsibilities have not extended beyond the borders of Arkansas. And the Democrats will be naive if they doubt that such bravado rhetoric will not be heard increasingly as the election approaches.
Indeed, although Democratic leaders say now they see no evidence of the president's playing politics with the situation, Bush in referring to a "pattern of willful non-compliance" toward various aspects of the U.N. resolution has the wherewithal to keep Saddam on the griddle, to his political advantage, all through the fall campaign.
But the situation has its downside as well. Any use of American forces during the campaign could be seen as politically motivated, and could backfire if such use went awry, resulting in serious American casualties or failing once again to bring Saddam to heel.
Still, there is always the possibility that, in the closing days or hours of a campaign, an incumbent president seeking re-election and unsure of the outcome will generate a foreign-policy crisis or other development to gain advantage. It has happened.
In the days before Richard Nixon was re-elected in 1972, his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, declared that "peace is at hand" in a flurry of negotiations to end the fighting in Vietnam. In 1980, the Republicans feared that Jimmy Carter would obtain release of long-held American hostages in the Middle East in the closing hours of his campaign against Ronald Reagan. So they set up a watch for an "October Surprise" that never came. In fact, some Democrats have accused the Republicans of striking a deal with Iranian leaders to block release of the hostages until after that election.
If George Bush is trailing in October and has only his foreign-policy card to play as the hour of voter decision approaches, Democrats no doubt will be nervously watching to see if this year's "October Surprise" turns out to be the use of force against Saddam.