Saddam Hussein created another tense moment last week FTC when he deployed surface-to-air missiles in the area of Iraq patrolled by American and allied warplanes. No one was quite certain of his intentions. Was he planning to attack a U.S. plane in retaliation for the MiG Americans shot down a few days earlier? Was he trying to discourage future attempts to enforce the no-fly zone? Was he once again challenging the restrictions imposed after the Gulf War -- to see if anyone was watching?
"Saddam Hussein is testing something," still-President Bush commented. "I don't know whether he is testing me or President Clinton."
Whomever he was testing, few doubt that the Iraqi dictator will step up his challenges after Bill Clinton takes office.
Mr. Hussein believes that strength resides less in weapons than in will. After surviving U.S. weapons in the Gulf War, he is more certain than ever that his strength of will enables him to prevail.
In the two years since he was "defeated," Mr. Hussein has again and again tested the vigilance and determination of the U.S. and its allies, challenging them to prove they will enforce the conditions imposed on Iraq after the war. After Inauguration Day, Mr. Hussein will be eager to take the measure of the new man in the White House.
No one knows today how cool, careful, determined, decisive or strong Bill Clinton will be when confronted with such a man. Being president of the United States is not like being governor of Arkansas. It is not like being a candidate for president. It is not like any other job. That is why no one knows for certain what the effects of the presidency's unmatched power will be on an incumbent.
It is clear, however, that the office does not necessarily make the man. Otherwise, all presidents would demonstrate the judgment, courage, decisiveness, tenacity and vision of the greatest. Not all do. But some, like Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman, display previously unsuspected qualities of leadership and strength.
James Macgregor Burns wrote in his magisterial study "Leadership" that: "Often leaders do not behave like leaders -- they do not because they cannot. To take the lead is to act in terms of certain values and purpose; leaders assume initiatives and organize support on the basis of the structure of wants, needs, expectations and demands that lies beneath value and purpose."
We learn about the character structures of presidents as we go. Alternatives, decisions and circumstance are often forced on presidents. Saddam Hussein forced on Mr. Bush, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and Jordan's King Hussein the alternative of responding with force to the invasion of Kuwait or accepting its conquest. We learned things we had not known about all three.
In the American political system, only a president has the power to make decisions with potentially devastating consequences for millions. Only a president must occasionally make a critical decision on such a matter quickly or lose the option to affect the situation. No one has practice in making such decisions prior to becoming president.
Dictators bent on expansion often test new American presidents -- to find out how far they can go without serious opposition. Joseph Stalin challenged an untested Harry Truman in Greece, Turkey, France and Italy. Nikita Khrushchev challenged John Kennedy (whom he mistook for a patsy) with Soviet missiles in Cuba; Mikhail Gorbachev challenged Ronald Reagan with the Soviet walkout from arms-control talks in Geneva.
Since it is no longer a bipolar world, Mr. Clinton can expect challenges from various men and groups eager to learn more than anyone now knows about what kind of president he will be. Early challenges the Clinton administration will be unable to avoid will probably include:
* Renewed, and more serious, provocations by Mr. Hussein, whose provocations have already included attacks on relief workers delivering humanitarian assistance, on planes enforcing the no-fly zone, on U.N. personnel, and refusal to comply with requested inspection of nuclear facilities.
* New assertions of Serbian power in Bosnia, where Serbian control still does not equal Serbian claims and ambitions, and in Kosovo. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic has shown himself skillful at "talking and fighting," using negotiations to stave off forceful international actions, while using force to extend his area of control. The inauguration of a new U.S. president may be seen by him as an opportunity for more ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
* A challenge of a different kind in the U.N. If Israel continues its refusal to permit the return of the Hamas leaders sentenced to two years of exile (as demanded by the Security Council), Palestinian allies may press for mandatory sanctions on Israel. Until now, the U.S. has always used its veto when necessary to prevent sanctions from being levied against Israel for acting in self-defense against violent attacks. Partisans of Islamic fundamentalism and the PLO may try to confront Mr. Clinton with taking a position on this issue before he and his team have thought it through.
Confronted with an imperative need to make decisions on these issues, aware that decision and indecision, action and inaction will have important, partly unforeseeable consequences, Bill Clinton may look back with nostalgia to the days he could focus wholeheartedly on "the economy, stupid."
And the American electorate may be very surprised by the strength or weakness, wisdom or inadequacy of the man they have elected president.
Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.