'Don't Tread on Us'

June 28, 1993

Multiple messages were carried by those Tomahawk missiles as they hit an Iraqi intelligence command center over the weekend in retaliation for the Baghdad regime's attempt to assassinate former President George Bush. Saddam Hussein may not learn the lesson intended; he seldom does. But others will, among them:

* President Clinton's legions of domestic detractors. They now see his reputation for wavering leadership countermanded by his first decisive military action since taking office.

* The U.S. armed forces, deeply suspicious of a commander-in-chief who avoided service in Vietnam and wants to lift the ban on gays in the military. They now see a Bill Clinton ready to use force and to invoke that storied rallying call of American defiance: "Don't Tread on Us."

* Nations all around the world. They now see a president hobbled by reluctant allies in Bosnia seizing an opportunity to strike out on his own against a bloodied dictator ever ready to provoke the U.S.

* Terrorists everywhere. They now see a fully alerted American government prepared to crack down at home and abroad against those attempting to hit U.S. targets and personnel, whether they be the Hudson River tunnels or a former president.

Mr. Clinton's action was not only well justified but well timed. He can now go to the Big Seven summit in Tokyo next week as a U.S. president still committed to collective action but unshackled by the demands of multilateralism when they result in impotence, as in the former Yugoslavia. This will be Mr. Clinton's first top level group meeting with his allies, and it will be his chance to demonstrate the U.S. is indeed the world's sole superpower.

That he chose a risk-free assault against a universally hated despot does not detract from the psychological impact of his action. That an armada of 23 Tomahawk missiles is hardly an imposing show of force by a nation sharply downsizing its military establishment does not undercut the clear warning that no nation of Earth is in position to attack or retaliate against the U.S. with impunity.

Mr. Clinton is too good a politician not to know his poll ratings will shoot up as the nation instinctively rallies to its president at times of military involvement. This will stand him a good stead in Tokyo as he deals with a sextet of foreign leaders in far worse shape than he is politically. It will also strengthen his hand at home as he attempts to convert House and Senate approval of differing economic plans into a better consensus measure that will be effective in restraining deficits and setting the stage for health care reform.

True, Saddam Hussein won't get the message. He has a cunning tyrant's ability to turn his blunders to personal advantage. But Mr. Clinton's unflinching response to the Bush assassination plot lets the rest of the world know the U.S. remains fully engaged in the Persian Gulf, where stability in the form of adequate oil supplies at reasonable prices is essential to the world economy.

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