Iraq: a Bush legacy for Clinton

January 15, 1993

President Bush's extraordinary activism in foreign affairs during the lame-duck phase of his White House tenure has now culminated in renewed air strikes against a recalcitrant Iraq. After intervening in Somalia to avert mass starvation, signing a new arms control agreement with Russia and ratcheting up U.S. pressure on Serb revanchists, this final blow at Saddam Hussein is a very personal affair. It must rankle that an Iraqi leader who has brought appalling destruction upon his own country will still be in power as Mr. Bush departs.

President-elect Clinton, despite his steadfast public support of the Bush policies that will soon be on his agenda, has rightly put some distance between himself and Mr. Bush on the personal aspects of the Washington-Baghdad relationship. While noting that he has no intention of normalizing relations with Iraq under Saddam, Mr. Clinton says he is not "obsessed" with him and will judge the Iraqi strongman by what he does -- not what he says in inflammatory Islamic rhetoric.

This seems to us a wise approach. Saddam Hussein evidently revels in being a U.S. obsession. It permits him to posture before his own people and the Islamic world as the foe of Western domination, thereby undercutting the position of other Muslim leaders whether they be religious fundamentalists or enlightened pragmatists. Saddam is neither. His control of huge oil resources in the world's most dangerous region has been used for war, pogroms and personal aggrandizement.

Mr. Clinton's response is to put the current U.S.-Iraqi feud right where it belongs -- as a test of the United Nation's ability to enforce civilized standards of conduct on an unruly world. Mr. Bush, to his credit, was the first to underscore this approach in his call for a "new world order" following the end of the Cold War. But it is left for Mr. Clinton to flesh out and universalize this doctrine by finding ways for the United Nations -- not just the United States -- to enforce some degree of global stability.

Meanwhile, the next president will be left crucial decisions: When to withdraw U.S. forces from Somalia without leaving chaos behind. When to project military force into the former Yugoslavia to stop Serbian expansionism and save Bosnian Muslims from further tragedy. When and how to deal with an Iraqi leader whose basic instincts are combative, not cooperative.

These are big issues for Mr. Clinton, a man whose hopes of concentrating on domestic matters may well be thwarted. He knows he will soon be tested by friends as well as foes who want to measure his mettle. His fellow Americans will support his every effort to do well.

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