In attacking Iraq, Clinton did what he had to do ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- It's never easy for a president to order the use of military force, but in sending cruise missiles against Iraq's intelligence headquarters in retaliation for the reported assassination plot against former President George Bush, President Clinton had the closest thing to an easy call. Politically, at home and abroad, he needed just such a demonstration to counter a growing image of indecisiveness.

The loss of civilian life in Baghdad, euphemistically called "collateral damage" by the Pentagon, does give Saddam Hussein a peg with which to cast Clinton as the latest Great Satan and to rev up more anti-American hatred among his own population. And with the photos from Baghdad of caskets and grieving relatives of the civilian dead, the Pentagon view that 20 accurate hits out of 23 tries wasn't bad was a bit chilling. So was Clinton's post-raid remark that he felt "quite good about what transpired" and that "the American people should feel good about it."

Still, if the evidence that there was an Iraqi-directed plot to kill Bush was as "compelling" as the Clinton administration says, some unilateral firm response by the United States was imperative, and the limited and relatively controlled nature of it showed good judgment. As cold-blooded as it may be, if there is loss of life but it's not Americans dying, public opinion at home usually will accept it as the price of defending American honor.

The best indication that the one-shot retaliation will go down well at home is in the comment of one of the Senate's most conspicuous doves, Democrat Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. Wellstone was among the most outspoken opponents of the use of American force in repelling Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. Of the latest strike, he said: "If the evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein planned or conspired to assassinate President Bush, then the United States must respond. But I remain concerned about the loss of life of innocent people. . . . It's a burden we have to carry."

Another Senate liberal, Wisconsin freshman Democrat Russ Feingold, called the action "a clear statement that President Clinton will not tolerate terrorist attacks and that the United States will retaliate forcefully," while adding that "of course I will want to have the opportunity to review the specifics of the action to ensure that all aspects of it were justified."

The closest thing to criticism of Clinton was that of Rep. Ronald Dellums, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who expressed "grave concern" that congressional leaders weren't consulted in advance and said he would have favored "further diplomatic action." Dellums argued that "we must move past the time in human affairs when violence is the first recourse of statecraft," but failure to make a military response likely would have been viewed widely as lack of resolve and evidence of softness on Clinton's part.

No president can invite such an impression, and especially not this president. Clinton's record of draft avoidance during the Vietnam War and his lack of military service have made him particularly vulnerable to allegations of softness, and even of hostility toward the military he now commands.

This particular airstrike of unmanned missiles launched from sea put no Americans in immediate peril, and in that sense was about as politically safe for Clinton as possible. But while it did demonstrate resolve and decisiveness, it won't get him out of the woods in his dealings with many in the military irate over his efforts to end discrimination against gays in uniform and skeptical about him personally because of his draft record.

Furthermore, this sort of military episode seldom has much staying power in determining a president's popularity. Bush took infinitely more daring, spectacular and decisive action in driving Saddam from Kuwait and it didn't save him politically in the end.

A USA Today/CNN poll just out found that while 66 percent of those surveyed supported the attack, only 20 percent said it made them more confident in Clinton's leadership abilities, to 14 percent who said it made them less confident and 60 percent who said it made no difference. Clinton's own political fortunes remain pinned to what he does at home over the long haul.

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