WASHINGTON -- Limited force, limited risk. Those are the hallmarks of President Clinton's decision to order missile strikes early yesterday as punishment against Iraq.
Coming exactly eight weeks before Election Day, the measured use of armed force serves to counter criticism from Republican nominee Bob Dole that Clinton hasn't been tough enough on Saddam Hussein. It also offers a textbook example of how a president can employ military action at the height of a national campaign without gambling too much.
"What better target could [Clinton] have than the world's biggest troublemaker? You go punch him in the nose and run away again," said Greg Schneiders, a Democratic political consultant.
Looking drawn and baggy-eyed after nine days on the road, Clinton went before TV cameras in the Oval Office yesterday morning. As he reported to the nation on the attack he had ordered hours earlier, Clinton was transformed, in an instant, from candidate to commander in chief.
Even Dole, who charged over the weekend that Hussein was testing Clinton's "weak leadership" and finding it lacking, was forced to acknowledge the change. "I've had the privilege of talking with the president of the United States by telephone this morning about this incident," Dole said in stating his support for Clinton's action.
Personally briefing his Republican opponent was only one of the ways Clinton sought to minimize the risk to his re-election chances, even as administration officials said that politics played no part in his decision.
In his TV address, Clinton tried to make sure that his action would not be viewed in narrow, partisan terms. He compared his response to Hussein to the resolve shown by President George Bush during Operation Desert Storm five years ago. And he also recalled his own efforts, two years ago, in beefing up U.S. forces in the region after Hussein began amassing troops near Iraq's border with Kuwait.
As Pentagon officials noted, the way the attacks were carried out was designed to limit, as much as possible, the chance that U.S. forces would suffer major casualties or that large numbers of Iraqi civilians might be killed.
The B-52 bombers used in the initial raid have the capacity to fire their missiles from up to 750 miles away, enabling them to avoid entering Iraqi airspace and virtually eliminating the danger of being shot down.
Meantime, Clinton administration officials were careful yesterday not to say precisely what action Hussein had to take in response to the U.S. strikes. By remaining purposefully vague, the president and his advisers made it more difficult for Dole or others to call the mission a failure.
Dole laid out five ambitious goals yesterday for U.S. policy in Iraq, including an end to Iraqi interference with the Kurds, possibly paving the way for later criticism of Clinton's actions.
But Dole's ability to make Iraq an issue could be hindered by at least two factors: the role played by his adviser Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in allowing Hussein to survive the Persian Gulf war, and Dole's own actions, during a visit to Iraq a few months before it invaded Kuwait.
A partial transcript of that April 1990 meeting, released by Iraq, made Dole appear overly deferential to Hussein. Also during that visit, Dole erroneously told the dictator that a Voice of America radio employee who had written an editorial critical of Hussein had been fired.
Pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center said that Clinton stood to gain politically, at least in the short run. Even in the post-Cold War era, he noted, "the country tends to rally around the president" in international crises.
"Bill Clinton is a politically shrewd man. He knows as well as anybody this can only help him," agreed Kim R. Holmes, a foreign policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, adding that Clinton "had no choice but to strike" Iraq.
A strong economy at home is likely to be decisive in this fall's campaign, not foreign affairs, as Clinton himself noted in his speech at last week's Democratic National Convention. "In most election seasons," he acknowledged, "foreign policy is not a matter of great interest in the debates in the barbershops and the cafes of America, on the plant floors and at the bowling alleys."
But to the extent that the flare-up in Iraq deflects public attention away from Dole's efforts to promote his tax cut -- or, for that matter, from the salacious tale of Clinton's political guru, Dick Morris, and a high-priced call girl -- it works to Clinton's advantage.
"Every day's important when you're this far behind," conceded a senior Dole adviser, who spoke on condition he not be identified.
The Dole adviser agreed that Clinton would get at least a short-term political benefit from the attacks on Iraq, possibly extending the post-convention bounce in the polls that pushed the president's lead to 21 percentage points over the weekend.
But Clinton's very limited use of force against Iraq may not be enough to get Hussein to pull his troops out of Kurdish territory, noted a number of Republicans, led by former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger.
As a result, Clinton may be forced to take further military action, leaving him open to renewed criticism from Dole and to the possibility that something disastrous might happen.
Pub Date: 9/04/96