Act of decisiveness may help Clinton President's resolve could boost image

June 28, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton looked into the camera and told the nation that the message of his missile attack on Baghdad was "Don't Tread on Us," he sent a signal with much broader implications for his presidency.

The original line, printed on a Navy flag raised in 1775 by Lt. John Paul Jones, pictured a rattlesnake and read, "Don't Tread on Me." When Jeremy Posner, a speech writer with the National Security Council, brought it in a draft to Mr. Clinton, the president seized on it immediately, officials said.

"It fit exactly what he was trying to convey," said one senior administration official.

In his first five months in office, Mr. Clinton has earned a reputation for being indecisive and for being someone who can be pushed around. This image has frustrated the president -- and he has lashed out when asked about it.

But when presented with a report that found overwhelming evi

dence that the Iraqi intelligence service had plotted to kill former President George Bush during his visit in April to Kuwait City, Mr. Clinton faced a serious provocation -- an act of war, actually -- as well as an international villain, Saddam Hussein.

"I feel quite good about what has transpired, and I think the American people should feel good about it," Mr. Clinton said yesterday on his way to church.

"It's clear that it was a success," Mr. Clinton added. "We were trying to avoid killing civilians while still expressing our convictions. We had minimal loss of life, and we sent the message we needed to send."

White House officials were adamant yesterday that political considerations had played no role in the decision to retaliate against Iraq by launching Tomahawk cruise missiles at the main headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service. But they conceded privately that the image of Mr. Clinton acting swiftly, decisively -- and with force -- couldn't hurt.

The rapid movement contrasted greatly with Mr. Clinton's public agonizing over Bosnia, key appointments and other domestic issues, such as gays in the military.

Message to terrorists

In sending a message to Baghdad, Mr. Clinton also sent a message to other would-be terrorist nations, aides said, particularly to Iran and Sudan, which they suspect of being behind the plot uncovered Thursday to bomb the United Nations and other targets in New York City.

One official suggested that it would not be too much of a reach to say that Mr. Clinton was sending a message to allied nations, which had refused to go along with his plan to end the fighting in Bosnia; to Congress, which has given the president fits on his economic package; and to the American people, who, according to polls, hold Mr. Clinton in lower esteem than they have held any new president in history.

White House aides say they realize that any boost Mr. Clinton receives in public approval from the attack is apt to be short-lived. Critical decisions on the economy and health care still are on the forefront.

On the other hand, it was necessary for Mr. Clinton to begin to alter the impression voters were forming about him, and aides are hopeful that the weekend's events will begin to create an image of Mr. Clinton as a more forceful, sure-handed leader.

"We got the report, he read it, he ordered the attack and it was carried out," said one administration official. "If that's not decisive, what is?"

"People want a president to stick up for them," said Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary.

Ms. Myers and other aides said the president was briefed formally Wednesday evening at his residence about the findings of the CIA and FBI joint investigation into the plot. On Thursday, Mr. Clinton was given a written report documenting the evidence against the Iraqis.

It came in three forms, administration officials said:

* Confessions from some of those arrested by Kuwait.

* Forensic evidence showing that the detonators, explosives and methods were of a type used only by the Iraqi intelligence service.

* Other, unspecified forms of intelligence information, gleaned from satellite eavesdropping, secret agents or some other forms of spying.

'Evidence was overwhelming'

"The evidence was overwhelming," Vice President Al Gore said yesterday on CBS News.

On Thursday night, Mr. Clinton met again in his residence, this time with all his top foreign policy advisers, including Mr. Gore, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, Defense Secretary Les Aspin, CIA Director R. James Woolsey and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The discussion coincided with Senate debate on Mr. Clinton's deficit reduction package, and the president interrupted the meeting several times to place calls to lawmakers.

"The options for how to respond to Saddam were outlined," one White House official said, and they included bombing Saddam Hussein's compound. That idea was not recommended by General Powell or by Mr. Aspin, who feared that it would bring the United States down to Iraq's level.

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