Clinton's Inaugural Week

January 19, 1993

Bill Clinton's inaugural week began with missiles and bomb hitting Iraq, switching the headlines from his triumphant entry into Washington to a final use of force by President Bush against Saddam Hussein. The question now becomes whether Mr. Clinton will order further attacks after he takes his oath of office tomorrow.

This, obviously, was not the way he planned it. The packed schedule of glittering events in Washington, the focus of his campaign on domestic affairs, the exhilaration of a new generation coming to power all pointed to one long celebration comparable to John F. Kennedy's inauguration 32 years ago. Instead, the nation will be casting anxious thoughts toward the Persian Gulf, as it did in 1981, when Ronald Reagan's accession brought the dramatic release of U.S. embassy hostages from Iran.

Not since Abraham Lincoln has a newly elected president faced military decisions almost immediately after taking the oath of office. It could be argued that President Bush made it easier for Mr. Clinton to keep the pressure on Saddam by launching a rolling military offensive to force his compliance with United Nations edicts. But it could be argued just as easily be that Mr. Clinton finds himself committed to a continuing course of action that he might not have chosen.

Iraq is not the only tough foreign policy problem Mr. Bush has bequeathed to his successor. Mr. Clinton has to decide how he can extract American forces from Somalia without having that war-torn country revert to the chaos in which increasingly disillusioned U.S. troops first found it. He himself has vowed to "turn up the heat" on Serbia, where the Western powers have dithered despite the suffering of Bosnian Muslims. And then there is Haiti, an embarrassment of Mr. Clinton's own making that Mr. Bush has converted into spectacular Coast Guard enforcement of his no-asylum policy.

For a candidate who was able to cast his winning campaign on domestic issues, Mr. Clinton is quickly confronting two truisms: One, that a president cannot run the economy. He can make only incremental differences, which is why deficit realities have forced him to discard some heady promises made on the hustings. Two, that a president -- and only a president -- runs foreign policy. Mr. Bush's unprecedented initiatives during the transition underscore the point. Mr. Clinton's decision to back them to the hilt was heralded as exemplary cooperation. It also could be described as co-option.

Mr. Clinton's freedom of action in regard to Iraq may really be determined by Saddam Hussein. If the Iraqi dictator suddenly complies with U.N. orders, Mr. Clinton may be able to switch from belligerency to negotiation and get his administration off to the kind of upbeat start the lucky Mr. Reagan had 12 years ago. But if Saddam decides to test his mettle, Mr. Clinton's inaugural week may end the way it began -- with bombs falling again on Iraq.

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