Bush puts Iraq at top of Clinton's agenda ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

January 20, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- There's a certain irony in the fact that George Bush, who was rejected for a second presidential term in part because he focused too much attention on foreign policy, has forced foreign policy onto the plate of a successor determined to concentrate on domestic policy.

Bush spent his last days in the White House paying attention to matters far from American shores, as he always chose to do. Aides often made the point that he preferred to do so because he could act on his own in the foreign-policy realm, whereas he had to cope with a contentious Congress on domestic affairs.

His campaign plea that in a second term he would turn his attentions home was not persuasive to voters who questioned his priorities and asked why he had to wait for re-election to deal with a lingering recession.

Now comes a new president who managed to overcome a conspicuous lack of foreign-policy experience by promising to put the concerns of the American people first here at home. That was the cornerstone of Bill Clinton's winning campaign from the start.

He underscored it by holding a high-profile conference of American business leaders in Little Rock after the election on how best to achieve economic recovery, leading the discussions himself.

In making his first Cabinet and White House staff appointments in the field of domestic and economic affairs, Clinton underlined his determination to make a fast start in addressing the economy and such major campaign concerns as health care and education reform.

That, no doubt, remains his hope, but Bush's decision to close out his White House tenure with a series of air strikes against Iraq may intrude on Clinton's desire to concentrate on domestic problems from day one.

Clinton has supported Bush's actions and served notice on Saddam Hussein of continuity in American foreign policy.

That does not mean that the new president is obliged to continue bombing Iraq until Saddam stops defying U.N. resolutions that were central to the 1991 cease-fire. But neither can he afford to leave the impression that his focus on matters at home will enable Saddam to keep jerking the the United States around.

Another irony in the current situation is that the last time a Democrat moved into the White House -- another Southerner with no appreciable foreign-policy experience -- there was much consternation that he would be eaten alive in the arena of diplomacy and foreign affairs.

But that president, Jimmy Carter, while stumbling in the domestic realm and in dealings with a Congress controlled by his own party, achieved a remarkable breakthrough in Middle East politics in the Camp David accords.

What's more, the Carter penchant for personal, tenacious involvement in minute details that was blamed in part for his domestic shortcomings was the quality that brought him that hallmark foreign-policy success. He literally locked Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat into the Camp David compound and hammered at them incessantly until they reached agreement.

Clinton, with his history of opposition to the Vietnam War and questions about avoidance of the draft, was questioned from time to time during the campaign about his willingness and ability to order Americans into battle as commander-in-chief. His stock answer was that as commander of the Arkansas National Guard he had to face a similar test. But Arkansas is not the United States, and its National Guard is not the awesome military machine now in Clinton's hands.

There is always the possibility, considering his personal history regarding the military, that he will feel compelled to prove his resolve by picking up precisely where Bush is leaving off in his 11th-hour confrontation with Saddam.

Carter's one military adventure, the attempt to rescue American hostages held in Iran, was a visible and humiliating failure. But what he tried to do was by its very nature an extremely high-risk undertaking, in an election year to boot.

Clinton is under no political pressure to dispose of Saddam. But the situation will complicate his determination to focus on the economic morass at home.

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