The politics of the Iraqi crisis

September 04, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND and JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- For months, as President Clinton's re-election campaign moved uneventfully forward and Bob Dole struggled for a foothold, the broad assumption was that absent some unforeseen major development, the president would be home free on November 5. Now such an event has occurred -- Saddam Hussein's incursion into Kurdish territory, triggering the president's decision to launch retaliatory air strikes against Iraq.

As an American chief executive whose lack of foreign-policy experience has always made him vulnerable to criticism, Mr. Clinton is under particular pressure to demonstrate strength, fortitude and wisdom in handling the latest crisis. At the same time, however, Americans traditionally rally around their commander-in-chief in such crises, and this one gives Mr. Clinton the opportunity to display his leadership qualities.

In a sense, the crisis could prove to be more of a peril to Senator Dole, who has come close to violating the time-honored American axiom that politics should stop at the water's edge. On Sunday, he attributed the situation to ''weak leadership'' on Mr. Clinton's part, adding that ''we probably shouldn't have to be doing what we're doing.''

On Monday, however, after the Clinton-ordered missile strikes, Mr. Dole pulled back somewhat, saying ''I stand four-square behind our men and women in uniform,'' but still by implication criticizing the president. ''I trust that this development marks the beginning of decisive action'' against Mr. Hussein, he said.

Addressing an American Legion convention yesterday, Senator Dole said Mr. Clinton's goals should be ''withdrawal of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard from Northern Iraq, release of Kurdish prisoners, and an end to interference by Iraq and Iran among the Kurds, re-establishment of the U.S. nuclear weapons inspection effort, and an end of Saddam Hussein's support of international terrorism.'' He seemed to be laying down a marker by which the president's success or failure should be measured.

Mr. Dole's remarks convey the difference in political perspective that has accompanied his conversion from Senate majority leader to Republican presidential nominee. Last December, when President Clinton elected to send U.S. troops to Bosnia, the senator took a similar position of supporting the American troops on the ground. But he withheld the sort of implied or explicit criticism of Mr. Clinton that have marked his comments on the president's leadership in the Iraqi crisis.

The water's edge

Although Mr. Dole had been critical earlier of Mr. Clinton's Bosnia policy, he had stopped at the water's edge. ''The decision's been made, the deployment started,'' he said then, expressing only a broad goal of ''a Bosnia that is self-reliant.''

This time around, Senator Dole comes off as a frustrated man. First, Mr. Clinton's incumbency enabled him to set the stage for a successful Democratic convention with a series of bill-signings for which he took credit, and another series of voter-pleasing domestic initiatives as he whistle-stopped there. Now the president is front-and-center acting ''presidential'' on foreign policy, with all that implies about leadership in the midst of his re-election campaign.

Mr. Dole risks coming across as carping, while reluctantly following the leader. Despite the yardsticks he has set for the president, only a fiasco in the implementing of the air-strike policy is likely to deny Mr. Clinton another boost in public opinion, at a time when the senator desperately needs to close the wide gap between them.

If President Clinton, and the country, are lucky, his response to Mr. Hussein's latest adventure will produce the quick and

decisive results that his predecessor George Bush achieved with his assault on the Iraqi dictator's forces in 1991. Only a drawn-out encounter, with American casualties, figures to damage the president politically. And there is little Mr. Dole can or ought to say, by way of blaming him or setting high stakes for success, that will accrue to his own political benefit.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/04/96

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