Who for Commander-in-Chief?


George Bush and Bill Clinton were markedly defensive and less than candid in separate appearances this week before the American Legion.

The Republican president stoutly defended his decision to halt combat operations against Saddam Hussein's fleeing legions in February 1991, saying he was not in the slaughter business. He made no mention, however, of his attempts to placate Iraq, despite warnings of its warlike intentions, by offering it economic aid almost to the day it invaded Kuwait. Nor did he deal with the resulting slaughter of Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south of Iraq because the United States did not wipe out Baghdad's elite forces when it had the chance.

His Democratic challenger pleaded for understanding of his many ploys to dodge the draft when he was a graduate student during the Vietnam War. He did not, however, explain his assertions at the time that he loathed the military and made pro forma gestures of a willingness to serve "to maintain my political viability within the system." Instead, he bracketed himself with Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, presidents without previous military service who, incidentally, never had to take steps to avoid it.

Foreign policy is one of the few areas in which President Bush draws higher ratings than Governor Clinton. Yet in assessing the Saddam Hussein, his judgment was wrong both in the months leading up to the gulf war and in its immediate aftermath. So he is left with the lame alternative of saying he was trying to do what he felt was right.

Perhaps Mr. Bush took this tack because he anticipated an attack on this flank by Mr. Clinton. He was wrong. Mr. Clinton repeatedly claims he supported the president's call for the use of force against Iraq. Yet he was quoted in the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial two days after Congress gave the president a green light as saying, "I agree with the arguments" of those who wanted to give sanctions more time before the nation went to war. Therefore, the Arkansas governor was probably wise in not rehashing this question since it leaves him ambiguous on a vital national question.

Instead, he compared his decision to discuss his draft record before the American Legion to John F. Kennedy's historic defense before Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960 of the right of a Catholic to seek the presidency. In doing so, he overlooked one important difference: JFK was speaking of a personal situation over which he had no control; Mr. Clinton had a direct role in his avoidance of military service in Vietnam.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton both insisted the U.S. must remain strong, but they differ on the size and structuring of the armed forces. These are important questions affecting the federal budget, America's world role and the state of an economy in painful transition from wartime to peacetime status. In assessing these issues, voters ultimately have to decide which candidate has the right stuff to be a wise and steadfast commander-in-chief.

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