President Clinton showed a flash of steel on his first day in office as American aircraft, locked on by Iraqi radar, hit back with missiles carrying the implicit message that U.S. resolve to enforce United Nations directives remains unchanged. Perhaps the Iraqi action, breaking Saddam Hussein's promise of a cease fire, was just a battlefield mistake. But in light of the Baghdad dictator's defiant cat-and-mouse strategy, it is reasonable to assume he was testing the new American president.
He got his answer. "We're going to stay with our (Iraq) policy, it is an American policy," Mr. Clinton told reporters while shaking hands non-stop with a horde of visitors at the White House.
The Iraqi challenge and the U.S. response amounted to a symbolic test of wills watched worldwide. Mr. Clinton had said shortly before his Wednesday inauguration that there was only one "American policy" toward Iraq, but he had drawn away from President Bush's insistence that Saddam had to go by saying he would judge the Iraqi leader on his actions. This still left a situation, as we said in this column Tuesday, that "Mr. Clinton's inaugural week may end the way it began with bombs falling again on Iraq."
Undoubtedly, Mr. Clinton would have preferred a day-after-inauguration without war clouds as he and his supporters whooped it up in Washington. Instead, he encountered trouble on the home front as well as abroad as opposition mounted to his nomination of Zoe Baird as attorney general. Ms. Baird, under fire for hiring two illegal aliens and then not paying Social Security taxes on their salaries, told the Senate Judiciary Committee she had no intention to withdraw and was confident she would be a "great attorney general." The White House started to back away from her.
The Baird dust-up is a lose-lose situation for the president: He loses if he gets an attorney general who has suddenly become a favorite target of talk-show taunts; he loses if he cannot prevail in his first struggle on Capitol Hill.
To put a gloss on his first days in office, President Clinton is likely to celebrate the 20th anniversary today of the Wade vs. Roe abortion rights decision by rescinding the Bush administration "gag order" that has prevented federally funded clinics from counseling women on abortion. He also is expected to approve fetal tissue research. We would applaud such moves. If Mr. Clinton has a mandate on anything, it is to reverse the anti-abortion stands of Mr. Bush and the religious right.
Many other early challenges face the new president, not least the pressures on him to produce an economic package that reconciles the contradictory goals of stimulating the economy and cutting the deficit. But having heard so much thunder about the difficulties that confront him, we doubt he is surprised by anything that has happened with the exception of the Baird embarrassment. All in all, Mr. Clinton is off to a strong start, due in no small part to Saddam Hussein's bloody-mindedness.