WASHINGTON -- Having $2 billion in your kick apparently means never having to say you're sorry. That is the only obvious explanation for the fact Ross Perot has not been widely pilloried for his charge that President Clinton was planning to get the United States into a "little war" in Bosnia to distract attention from his own failures.
"My biggest concern is that any time things get complicated in this country, we like to start a war," Perot said. "The promises are just imploding, so it's a good time to distract the American people. When you're shutting down the defense industry, you get a little war going. When you're downsizing the military, you get a little war going."
At the very least, the Perot accusation was, as White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos noted, "ill-considered and intemperate." In fact, it was the raving of a man who, first, has no understanding of how things work in American politics and government and, second, feels none of the constraints that conventional politicians accept.
For even the most partisan Republicans, accusing Bill Clinton of plotting a war in Bosnia to distract attention from his domestic problems would be beyond the pale. There are some accusations that fall outside accepted political dialogue, and the suggestion that a president would risk the lives of Americans for a "distraction" is one of them.
But for Ross Perot, who clearly shares the same ambition to destroy Clinton that might be expected of the most partisan Republican, there are apparently no limits on what constitutes fair comment.
This doesn't suggest there never have been occasions when the timing of foreign policy and military initiatives has been guided to some degree by domestic political considerations. The attack on Grenada, that great military triumph of 1983, was ordered by President Ronald Reagan immediately after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that cost 239 American lives. But the Reagan administration had been making threatening noises about Grenada for months.
The situation here is quite different. For one thing, the situation in Bosnia has been building for more than a year. It is something that has been imposed on Clinton, not a crisis conveniently trumped up for political reasons. On the contrary, all the political logic argues that a military action in Bosnia would be damaging ** to Clinton rather than helpful. The last thing he needs is something that distracts attention from the focus he needs on his economic package and other domestic proposals.
But Ross Perot is never fettered by logic or any other restraining influence. What is becoming increasingly obvious is that the billionaire from Texas has a consuming ambition for the White House despite all his declarations to the contrary.
A year ago when Perot was a candidate for the office he directed his fire almost entirely at then-President George Bush, leading to the obvious inference that he had some personal animosity toward the president perhaps as a result of some real or imagined slight he might have suffered at Bush's hands in Texas. But Clinton no sooner had taken office than Perot began to rail at him with a similar fury of sound bites. Thus, the only logical inference now is that nobody is going to do the job to the satisfaction of Ross Perot.
Moreover, Perot gets away with it -- thanks to a complaisant press and a gullible public. He is the one who can deride sound-bite politics while playing it to the hilt, the one who can complain about others' policy proposals without ever producing one of his own, the one who can accuse a president of dastardly behavior without being excoriated by timid politicians in both parties.
This latest incident is, in short, another testimonial to the power FTC of money. Perot was able to buy himself into the 1992 campaign and become enough of a player to capture 19 percent of the vote despite such bizarre behavior as his charge that the Republicans were plotting to interfere with his daughter's wedding. He is able to keep himself in the picture today because he has the money to buy a half-hour "infomercial" -- perhaps "misinfomercial" would be more accurate -- on NBC and to buy the time to be a factor in 1996.
And he will continue to get away with it so long as politicians, in both parties, continue to cower before him rather than confronting him.