Clinton not yet pushing panic button in Iraq crisis



WASHINGTON -- In all the tribulations of the first two years of his presidency, Bill Clinton is often compared to the previous Democrat to occupy the White House, Jimmy Carter. Clinton is said, like Carter, to try to take on too many problems at the same time and to try to be a micromanager, putting his finger into every pie that comes across the administration table.

During and after Carter's single term, many critics faulted him particularly for permitting himself to become too personally, deeply and conspicuously engaged in the hostage crisis that began in November 1979 with the seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the holding of 52 Americans. They were not released for 444 days, until the very hour Carter left the presidency and Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981 -- a particularly humiliating circumstance for Carter.

Carter injected himself immediately into the crisis, canceling a trip to Canada and his Thanksgiving vacation in Georgia and putting his re-election campaign on hold for months, falling back on a Rose Garden strategy that was a constant reminder of how hog-tied he had become by the crisis. Political injury was added to insult when a rescue mission he ordered ended in a debacle of crashed helicopters in the Iranian desert.

Now President Clinton is confronted with a much smaller-scale situation in Iraq with the seizing of two Americans working for private contractors, on charges they crossed the Iraqi border from Kuwait illegally and for which they have been sentenced to eight years in prison. Unlike Carter, he has chosen so far to low-ball the matter, leaving it to diplomatic efforts to bring about the men's release, with no explicit threat of military action if they're not returned.

This sensible position has caused two Republican presidential aspirants, declared candidate Pat Buchanan and candidate-on-the-brink Sen. Richard Lugar, to criticize Clinton for failing to warn Iraq point-blank that the United States has the option to take military steps if the men aren't set free. Such a complaint from the bombastic Buchanan is no surprise, but Lugar is another matter. He has a well-deserved reputation for a sober approach to foreign policy, but presidential fever has a way of affecting those so afflicted.

In light of the pulverizing administered by American forces to Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, you might reasonably think that the Iraqis would need no reminding that the United States has the wherewithal to clobber them at will. As White House press secretary Mike McCurry put it in the face of the comments of Buchanan and Lugar, "I think based on recent history, there's probably no doubt in the mind of the government of Iraq that the United States has military options at its disposal."

The painful history of the Iranian hostage crisis, however, makes it hardly likely that Clinton would raise the stakes in the current situation by threatening force, let alone using it. Presidents risk their own credibility by suggesting they may do something, or actually saying they will, and then backing off. Just ask Bill Clinton himself, who talked tough regarding Somalia and Bosnia and then shut up rather than put up. The last thing this president needs right now, beleaguered at home as he is, is to put himself squarely in the middle of a hostage crisis, as Carter did from late 1979 to the very end of his presidency.

A good indication that the administration is keeping its head in the face of the political grandstanding of Buchanan and Lugar is the fact that its spokesmen have refrained from referring to the two men held in Iraq as "hostages," though it's a fair bet that the Iraqis hope to use them to press for a loosening of the economic embargo still imposed on them.

Sen. Tom Harkin, who represents one of the two men, an Iowan, has done a modest bit of grandstanding himself in sponsoring a "sense of the Senate" resolution urging Clinton "to take all appropriate action to assure their prompt release and safe exit from Iraq." But Harkin's action is harmless compared with the transparent muscle-flexing of the two Republicans. But then Harkin isn't running for president this time around.

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