PRESIDENT CLINTON should accept that whatever he does or fails to do with respect to Iraq's aggression, leading Republican campaigners will criticize him for doing too much or too little or both. So he might as well try to do the right thing. The trick is to figure out what that is.
It is too late to urge that politics stop at the water's edge, a principle handed down from another era. Lip service will not make it work this time anymore than it did when Democrats questioned President Bush's gulf war deployment. When the parties are honestly separated by genuine and philosophic differences on foreign policy and the use of force in implementing it, those differences are the proper stuff of national politics.
But when policy choices are murky, they should not be manipulated as though only the election matters and not the policy. Such cynicism threatens to overwhelm rational management of the crisis in relations with Iraq that was triggered by the dictator Saddam Hussein's invasion of the U.S.-protected Kurdish zone of Northern Iraq, after he was invited by the dominant Kurdish guerrilla group to oust its rival.
Presumably the deployment of U.S. ground troops is to provide a shield for Kuwait while it allows U.S. stealth fighter-bombers to operate from its soil. There was ineptitude in announcing the move before winning an invitation from the ruler of Kuwait. In the course of straightening out this communications glitch, the 5,000 troops became planned 3,000.
It will take an air of competence and calm now for the show of force to do its job without having to be used in anger. Saddam Hussein has been shown he cannot get away with murder while the U.S. is distracted with its election. He should next be shown that he cannot play partisan differences in the U.S. for his own advantage. He should not be shown that he can.
This calls for restraint and common sense from the administration and the Dole campaign alike. What it really requires is for each side in the campaign to act presidentially and in the national interest. If politics cannot stop at the water's edge, demagogy must.