Actions on Haiti and Iraq are likely to help Clinton


BOSTON -- Political strategists like to talk about the value of "a defining moment" that permits their candidates to make a vivid impression on the electorate that changes permanently -- for better or for worse -- the way they are viewed by the voters.

The classic example was candidate Ronald Reagan's firm handling of an awkward situation at a debate with George Bush during the 1980 presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire. Another was candidate Walter F. Mondale's ill-fated declaration in 1984 that he would have to raise taxes if he were elected president. A third was Michael S. Dukakis' notorious tank ride in the 1988 campaign.

It would be premature to suggest that President Clinton necessarily has enjoyed a defining moment in his handling of the concurrent situations in Haiti and Iraq. For one thing, there are still many potentially perilous days ahead in both countries.

But Clinton's success in driving the military leaders out of power TC in Haiti and his prompt and sure-handed response to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein in Iraq does have the potential to change the way some Americans view the president's capacity to deal with national security questions.

From the outset, Clinton has been on the defensive on foreign policy, in part because incumbent Republican Bush made such a point of questioning his credentials during the 1992 campaign. Clinton also has been burdened with his personal history of avoiding the draft during the war in Vietnam, a course his critics translated to mean he lacked the bona fides to serve as commander in chief.

Clinton himself added to his problems with his tentative and sometimes clumsy early policy initiatives, particularly when he called on U.S. allies to act "quickly and decisively" to intervene in Bosnia only to find they would not follow his leadership.

The new president also was plagued in his first 18 months in office by the contrast between his extravagant criticism of Bush on foreign policy during the campaign and his own performance once in a position to change things. As a candidate he derided Bush for his soft treatment of the regime in China; as president he ended up following the same policy by authorizing most-favored-nation treatment on trade and essentially ignoring the human rights abuses he found intolerable as a candidate.

Today, however, there is reason to believe he may be capable of changing perceptions of himself that have been so politically damaging for a president whose prime experience in leadership was his 10 years as governor of a small state.

In Haiti, Clinton seems well on the way to accomplishing the purposes of the policy he outlined without suffering the kind of serious casualties among American troops that surely would evoke a political backlash. The process has not always been tidy, and former President Jimmy Carter's extraordinary mission clearly helped make things easier than they would have been if an invasion had been required.

But the bottom line is that Jean-Bertrand Aristide is in a position to return to power in Port-au-Prince -- a prime goal of U.S. policy under Republican and Democratic administrations for the last three years.

In Iraq, the strong military response ordered by Clinton apparently has called the bluff of Saddam Hussein.

In political terms, none of this is likely to have any direct and obvious impact on the midterm elections. It would be a stretch to imagine many voters finding virtues in congressional Democrats because the president has acted effectively on Iraq.

As George Bush discovered in 1992, foreign policy successes -- even one as spectacular as the Persian Gulf War -- have a limited shelf life as political assets.

But voters like to have a certain comfort level with their presidents' ability to conduct foreign policy with some assurance. Whether Clinton has provided that comfort with Haiti and Iraq won't be clear until the situations play themselves out and we hear from the opinion polls.

At the least, however, the president from Arkansas has shown he can be tough and decisive. For him, that is a marked improvement.

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