Clinton stresses he has 'no intention' of restoring diplomatic links with Hussein

January 15, 1993|By Thomas L. Friedman | Thomas L. Friedman,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Anxious to erase any impression that he would change U.S. policy on Iraq, President-elect Bill Clinton said yesterday that he had "no intention" of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Asked about the subject at a news conference in Little Rock, Ark., Mr. Clinton said the New York Times had misinterpreted his policy in its account of what he said in an interview Wednesday.

The article said Mr. Clinton indicated that he was ready for a fresh start with Mr. Hussein and quoted Mr. Clinton as saying that if "wants a different relationship with the United States and the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior."

Mr. Clinton did not dispute the quote, and Wednesday night, after the interview was published, a senior press aide who was present during the interview said the article accurately reflected Mr. Clinton's words.

But when a questioner said yesterday that Mr. Clinton had indicated a willingness to establish normal relations with Iraq if it complied with U.N. resolutions, he denied he was sending such a signal. He said he was "astonished that such a conclusion could have been drawn."

"There is no difference between my policy and the policy of the present administration," Mr. Clinton said.

He also said he had never been asked about normalizing relations, a term that refers to the establishment of diplomatic ties.

But a transcript of the interview shows that Mr. Clinton was specifically asked about that subject.

His spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, said after the news conference that Mr. Clinton had misspoken during the questioning yesterday about the interview and regretted it.

"President-elect Clinton never meant to suggest in any way that normalizing relations with Saddam Hussein was on his agenda," Mr. Stephanopoulos said in a statement.

"In the New York Times interview he said he could not imagine such normalized relations if Iraq failed to change its behavior," the spokesman said. "He believes that is highly unlikely, given Saddam's history. He inadvertently forgot that he had been asked that specific question about normalization, and he regrets denying that it was asked."

Clinton transition aides and Bush administration officials said Mr. Clinton was worried that any suggestion of an opening to Mr. Hussein, even if unintended, might be interpreted by Washington's gulf war allies as weakness or interpreted by the American public as undermining Mr. Bush.

Therefore, they said, he decided to leave a different impression yesterday.

In the interview, Mr. Clinton did not say he planned to re-establish relations with Iraq, but he did say that Mr. Hussein could change his relationship with the United States by changing his behavior.

Bush administration policy is based on the total rejection of Mr. Hussein as a leader under any circumstances.

Mr. Clinton made it clear in the interview that he would take a tough line with the Iraqi leader and would not waver in forcing him to live up to all U.N. resolutions.

But Mr. Clinton -- whose political philosophy has always been that even the most profound differences can be worked out between reasonable people and who prides himself on his ability to make that happen -- said he was not "obsessed" with Mr. Hussein. He said that as a religious man, he believes in deathbed conversions.

Fearing that his remarks would send the wrong signal, Mr. Clinton and Secretary of State-designate Warren M. Christopher decided to coordinate their statements yesterday, saying that his remarks had been misinterpreted, transition aides said.

When Mr. Clinton was asked at his news conference whether he could see the possibility of "normal relations" with Mr. Hussein, he answered, "What I said was -- no, nobody asked me about normalization of relations. I was asked whether the world could live with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. I said what I've said many times, that I will judge him by his conduct. That is precisely what the Bush administration has done.

"They have said we cannot normalize relations with Iraq as long as he's there, but they haven't bombed him every day. They decided to bomb him because he violated the United Nations cease-fire accord.

"That is my position. I will evaluate what I do based on his conduct. I have no intention of normalizing relations with him, and I was not asked that question."

In the interview, Mr. Clinton was asked whether he could envisage "normalizing" relations with Iraq, whether he could imagine "normal relations" with Mr. Hussein and whether he could envisage "a fresh start" with the Iraqi leader if he abided by U.N. resolutions.

In each case, he talked very broadly about his terms for any change in relations with Iraq and made it clear that there could be no shift if Mr. Hussein continued his defiance.

For instance, Mr. Clinton was asked, "But you don't take the view that there can be no normal relations with this man or with Iraq as long as he exists in power there?"

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