Iraq forces somber Bush to forgo 'higher note' exit

January 20, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It's doubtful President Bush's departure from office today is unfolding quite the way he would have chosen it.

He's going out in his favorite role: as a fully engaged commander in chief. But with his final strikes against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein yielding mixed results and the international coalition unraveling, Mr. Bush is confronted with painful signs that the world recognizes his power is nearly gone.

His final days may have been better than if he had spent them rattling aimlessly around a nearly empty White House, but probably not by much.

"I think he would have rather gone out with Somalia and START II

fresh in people's minds," said a Bush foreign policy aide. He was referring to the humanitarian military mission to Somalia Mr. Bush launched last month and the historic arms control agreement with Russia he signed in Moscow over New Year's weekend.

"That's a bit of a higher note," the aide said. "Saddam is kind of a reminder of the failure of the gulf war to resolve the continuing conflict with Iraq."

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said he sat in on all the war council meetings during the past week when the Iraqi conflict was discussed and watched Mr. Bush order three major attacks against his recalcitrant foe.

"I can tell you the meetings were all somber," he said. "Everybody involved would rather not have to be doing this at this time. . . . I think the president feels it would have been nice to have had these last few days just to say our goodbyes."

Mr. Bush seems to have to moved through this emotionally wrenching transition period in three distinct phases.

Immediately after his defeat in the Nov. 3 election, the president was so hurt, angry and humiliated he wanted to leave office immediately. Instead, he put his presidency on autopilot.

Following a month of near-seclusion, Mr. Bush assumed the controls of power once more and moved full throttle into a variety of foreign policy ventures. There were moments during his New Year's Eve visit to the U.S. troops he sent to Somalia when the president seemed back to his old self -- pumped up, confident, relishing contact with the soldiers and the Somalis.

But January's first couple of weeks were nothing but a series of "lasts" for Mr. Bush, and he has often been on the verge of tears.

There was a military salute at Fort Meyer on Thursday, a final White House dinner for political friends last Tuesday night.

And with the excitement over President-elect Bill Clinton's imminent arrival already thick in the air, Mr. Bush, former President Ronald Reagan and their top aides joined in a ceremony a week ago this morning at which they recalled that 12 years ago they were called the bright new hope for America.

By the next day, all the many pictures of Mr. Bush and his family that had given life to the walls and corridors of the West Wing were taken down and packed away.

"Now, he's not upbeat or downbeat, he's just beat," Victor Gold, a Washington writer and close friend of Mr. Bush, said of the president.

For better or worse, the military skirmishing with Iraq has largely rescued Mr. Bush from the coldness of the barren White House and the lonely feeling that must come from watching the Democrats celebrate his departure.

As usual in their encounters, the timing of this last faceoff between Mr. Bush and the Iraqi president was picked by Mr. Hussein, whom the president believes was probing for U.S. weakness in this time of transition.

But Iraq's repeated provocations not only forced the United States into action but made a military response possible by re-energizing the international coalition that Mr. Bush assembled for the Persian Gulf war, administration officials said.

Mr. Bush had been considering ordering another military attack against Iraq since September 1991, when Mr. Hussein refused to allow United Nations inspectors to leave Baghdad with files related to secret weapons programs that Iraq was believed to be developing in violation of the cease-fire agreement.

Despite many subsequent incidents of what Mr. Fitzwater called "cheat and retreat" tactics by Iraq, Mr. Bush was not able to get his allies to join him in inflicting military punishment on Mr. Hussein -- and he feared the domestic political consequences of acting alone.

Mr. Hussein's latest round of daily challenges and taunts turned the tide, said a senior Bush foreign policy adviser. "No one could have any sympathy for him," the adviser said.

Even so, Mr. Bush had to work the telephones furiously, interrupting his last weekend at Camp David to maintain allied support for the continued attacks Sunday and Monday. Yesterday, with Britain, France and Russia all seeking restraint on further military action, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams acknowledged the "coalition engine" had developed "squeaks."

Mr. Bush was also mindful of the awkward image at home of a lame- duck, ousted president waging warfare with U.S. lives, aides said.

Yesterday, Mr. Hussein chose to cap his highly personal battle against Mr. Bush with a final insult: He offered to stop firing at allied planes until Mr. Clinton takes office, hinting that perhaps a new U.S.-Iraq relationship can begin.

Both the Bush and Clinton camps ridiculed the offer, but there was no disguising that Mr. Bush's power has already effectively passed.

The president spent most of yesterday posing for pictures with his few remaining aides and calling foreign leaders, such as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, not to discuss policy and tactics but to say goodbye.

"We're ready to leave," Mr. Fitzwater said.

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