Clinton holds out hope for new start with Hussein

January 14, 1993|By Thomas L. Friedman | Thomas L. Friedman,New York Times News Service

LITTLE ROCK, ARK — LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- President-elect Bill Clinton said yesterday that he would not rule out renewing the ground war against Iraq if necessary to force compliance with United Nations resolutions, but he also indicated that he was ready for a fresh start with President Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Clinton, in an interview with the New York Times, said he was not "obsessed" with Mr. Hussein and that he could imagine a normal relationship with the Iraqi leader, provided he behaved in accordance with international norms.

The Arkansas governor said he wanted to send Mr. Hussein a signal, which he summarized this way: "I am going to judge you by your behavior. I am not going to sit around trying to figure out what ismotivating you."

What was most striking about the interview was Mr. Clinton's tone on Iraq. It was matter-of-fact and almost laconic in its self-assurance.

With neither bluster nor apparent anxiety, the president-elect repeatedly warned Mr. Hussein not to test him or underestimate him. Buthe seemed equally comfortable signaling the Iraqi leader that he could have new relationship with the new administration if he complied with the United Nations.

Mr. Clinton has supported President Bush's policy toward Iraq since the election, but he departed yesterday from Mr. Bush's position that Mr. Hussein must be ousted before Iraqi relations with the United States can improve.

The president-elect also made these points on foreign policy:

* He supported the peace talks in Geneva between the warring factions in Bosnia-Herzegovina but said that if they do not lead to an end to the "ethnic cleansing" -- which he repeatedly emphasized must stop -- he will be prepared to be more assertive than the Bush administration, including the possibility of military actions or pressing for war-crimes trials for Serbian leaders.

* He said he never believed the Bush administration's initial claim that U.S. forces would be out of Somalia by Jan. 20 but that he remained committed to the operation there even if it requires a continued military presence.

Sitting in the living room of the governor's mansion, where the hallways were filled with boxes in preparation for his move to Washington, Mr. Clinton said that if the Iraqi leader were on the couch next to him, this is what he would want to say to him:

"If you want a different relationship with me, you can begin by observing the U.N. requirements, and change your behavior. I am not obsessed with the man. But I am obsessed with the standards of conduct embodied in those U.N. accords, and if he were sitting on the couch, I would urge him to change his behavior."

"You know if he spent half, maybe even a third, of the time worrying about the welfare of his people that he spends worrying about where he positions his SAM missiles and whether he can push the boundaries of the cease-fire agreement, I think he would be a stronger leader and in lot better shape over the long run."

'Deathbed conversion'

Mr. Clinton made it clear that he does not view Mr. Hussein as the ideal ruler of Iraq but that he also does not see him as a irredeemable foe of the United States who must be destroyed no matter what.

"Certainly, based on the evidence we have, the people of Iraq would be better off if they had a different ruler," he said. "But my job is not to pick their rulers for them.

"I always tell everybody I am a Baptist. I believe in deathbed conversions. If he wants a different relationship with the United States and the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior."

Mr. Clinton stressed that he would not "rule out or rule in" any type of relationship between himself and the Iraqi leader, because "the issue here is not personalities, except insofar as that impacts on behavior."

He added, however, that he was baffled over why the Iraqi leader would consistently go out of his way to provoke the United States and its allies, knowing that it would lead to a military response.

"I thought to myself this last week: 'Why is this man doing this?' And I have asked others who have more experience than I do. I am genuinely interested. But I honestly don't know."

The president-elect clearly was signaling the Iraqi leader that he was ready for a fresh start, but he stressed with equal vigor that he would not rule out any type of military action, including sending U.S. ground troops against Iraq again.

No 'wavering'

Mr. Clinton indicated Mr. Hussein would be making a big mistake if he viewed the new president as a foreign policy greenhorn who could be taken advantage of, because, for Mr. Clinton, the issue is not experience but his place in history.

At stake in the Persian Gulf, he said, is not simply the U.S.-Iraqi relationship but something much larger: the credibility of the United Nationsin the post-Cold War world.

Mr. Clinton said he had no intention of being held responsible for undermining that credibility by caving in to the Iraqi leader before he meets all U.N. demands.

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