Clinton sends forceful signal

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 evidence that the Iraqi intelligence service had plotted to kill former President 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 .

"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.

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.

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?"

Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary, 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 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.

"Saddam may be a madman, but we operate within the realm of the civilized world," the official said.

Mr. Clinton slept on it, and on Friday morning -- just hours after the Senate had approved his economic program by one vote -- he phoned Anthony Lake, his national security adviser, with his answer: missile attacks on the intelligence compound.

The decision was made to wait a day until after the Islamic Sabbath -- and to hit the building at night to minimize the loss of life.

Pentagon officials stressed in briefings that taking out such a sophisticated center of intelligence would hobble Iraq's terror-making capabilities, at least for a while. At the White House, however, officials explained Saturday's attack as a message to Mr. Hussein.

"Hit us, and we'll hit back," explained one official. "Do it again, and we'll hit back again."

Asked yesterday whether he thought Iraq would truly refrain from further provocations, Mr. Christopher told ABC News, "It probably doesn't end the story, but it shows [Mr. Hussein] we have the capacity to hurt him very badly."

Not everyone agreed.

Columnist William Safire, a former Nixon administration speech writer, said yesterday that an empty building in exchange for an attempted murder of a U.S. president is a bad exchange.

"I think the president sent a message -- and the message was weakness," he said. "This was a pipsqueak response."

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