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Iraq Special Report

  Clinton Struggles to Make Bombing Case

By Dan Balz and John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 22, 1998; Page A01

President Clinton sat down with several of his foreign policy advisers last Tuesday morning to review the draft of the speech on Iraq he was to deliver at the Pentagon later in the day. He had read it overnight and wasn't satisfied.

Pulling out an underlined copy of a recently declassified CIA report on Iraq's biological and chemical weapons capability, Clinton, said one official, ordered aides to beef up his speech with more of the details about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's efforts to frustrate the will of the United Nations.

Still the president wasn't satisfied. As he sat on a Pentagon stage hours later, he continued to mark up the text with a pen. When he rose to deliver it, to the surprise of his advisers, he had reframed the entire argument. "He's thinking about this a lot," a senior administration official said later. "He's thinking about making this case to the American people -- how do you do it, how do you convey what the stakes are?"

As the standoff with Iraq enters what could be a decisive week, Clinton is still struggling for answers. He is, say his closest advisers, confident and comfortable about an eventual decision to launch a military strike against the Iraqis, if diplomacy fails. But he has yet to articulate in clear and compelling terms the case for military action and what it can accomplish.

Complicating Clinton's role as commander-in-chief is the controversy over his still undefined relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. As focused as the president may be on Iraq, the public backdrop for any decision includes the allegations hanging over him. Some critics say it could reduce his stature at home and abroad at this critical moment. Administration officials disagree vehemently and assert that the controversy will not affect the president's decision-making on Iraq.

"There is absolutely zero indication of that," said a senior administration official. "Just absolutely none."

But a friend of the president, while agreeing that Clinton has lost none of his focus on Iraq, said it is clear the Lewinsky problem hangs over him. "We'll start talking about national security issues and then he will revert and say, what did you think about this aspect of the Lewinsky problem. It's on his mind. There's no question about it. You can't consider him an automaton who can totally disengage from this nagging problem."

At the the Pentagon, where Clinton has had an uneasy relationship as commander-in-chief, the Lewinsky case continues to intrude at awkward moments -- although officials insist it has not interfered with their ability to coordinate military plans with the White House. When Defense Secretary William S. Cohen visited sailors 10 days ago on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Persian Gulf, one service member expressed concern about all the attention the Lewinsky matter was getting at the White House, promoting Cohen to assure him that the president remained intensely focused on the crisis in Iraq.

The months-long standoff with Saddam Hussein over weapons inspections presents Clinton with one of the most difficult foreign policy decisions of his presidency. A military strike could further fray the international coalition against the Iraqi dictator and endanger the Middle East peace process. It could strain relations among the world's big powers and provoke an international backlash if civilian casualties are high. And there is no guarantee that it will bring U.N. weapons inspectors closer to their goal of rooting out Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons capabilities.

Clinton's problem is complicated by the difference between the circumstances today and those that existed seven years ago after Saddam Hussein's forces overran neighboring Kuwait. Then the Bush administration's policy was straightforward: to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait. Clinton acknowledged the difference while speaking at a fund-raiser on Wednesday night.

Referring delicately to the "present difficulty we're having with Iraq," Clinton cautioned, "It is not a replay of what happened in 1991. It is a forerunner of what could or could not happen in 2010, 2020, in 2030."

What worries Clinton most is that the country has not been properly educated about the issue, according to advisers. But a senior administration official last week acknowledged that the "containment" strategy the president is pursuing toward Saddam Hussein is hard to explain to the public. "It is aesthetically displeasing," said this adviser. "A policy of containment does not have the finality of a policy of overthrow."

Another official said the president's failure to state the case for limited military action more clearly was because diplomacy remained a live option for defusing the crisis as long as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was in Baghdad. "There's an inherent ambiguity in the public argument," he said. "We're not going to know for several days which fork we're on. . . . The public case is much easier to make once you understand what you're doing."

Clinton enjoys strong public support for military action against Iraq, but there is far more limited support for the goal he has outlined -- strikes aimed only at reducing substantially Iraq's ability to produce weapons of mass destruction.

The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed 63 percent of those surveyed support bombing of Iraq unless the Iraqis stop interferring with U.N. inspectors. Men are far more supportive of military action than women.

But a Newsweek poll released yesterday showed minimal support for the limited airstrikes. Given a choice of that option, an all-out air and ground assault to eliminate Saddam Hussein and his weapons, or continued diplomatic efforts to force Saddam Hussein to let the inspectors do their work, only 18 percent selected limited airstrikes. In contrast, 39 percent supported the diplomatic approach and 36 percent said they favored all-out action to remove Saddam Hussein and destroy his weapons-producing capacity.

Levels of support for Clinton are nearly identical to those for President George Bush on the eve of the Gulf War in 1991. Three days before the bombing began, 68 percent of Americans approved of the way Bush was handling Iraq; today, 68 percent approve of Clinton's handling, according to the Post-ABC poll.

The path Clinton has chosen -- a middle ground between tolerating Saddam Hussein's defiance of the United Nations and an overthrow policy -- has left him vulnerable to criticism on both the left and the right.

The dilemma was on vivid display at a televised forum at Ohio State University last week when Clinton's top foreign policy advisers found their policy picked apart simultaneously by people who questioned what gave Clinton the moral right to launch attacks, and others who worried those attacks would not be robust enough to really damage the Baghdad regime.

"It's a typical Clinton solution," said Robert Zoellick, who was undersecretary of state in the Bush administration. "The question is, where do you find ourselves six months or a year from now."

Unless the military strike is more robust than anything the administration has signaled, Zoellick said, Clinton's response is "designed for domestic political consumption" so that he can tell people he has punished Saddam Hussein -- even if the Iraqi is no weaker over the long-term.

In any circumstance, the decisions Clinton faces would be difficult, but all the more so because of the Lewinsky scandal.

Despite the president's lofty approval ratings, Republican pollster Robert Teeter said he believes the Lewinsky allegations have tarnished Clinton at a moment he can least afford it. "I don't think you can go through what he's gone through and not have his stature, both in the world and in the U.S., diminished," Teeter said. "This is when you want the president and the commander-in-chief to stand tall. . . . How big a deal it is, I don't know."

Administration officials sharply dispute that contention, arguing that there is no evidence Clinton's problems have caused foreign leaders to look at him differently and that public support for the president has not been affected by the allegations of sex and perjury. The Post-ABC poll found that while 68 percent of those surveyed said Clinton is a strong leader, 28 percent said he had high personal moral and ethical standards.

Clinton's top advisers portray a president comfortable with the responsibility of being faced with a decision to launch military strikes, but at the same time willing to stop short of that step if diplomacy can solve the problem. "He knows in principle that we may have to bomb, but he wants one last diplomatic gasp," a senior official said. "If he feels it's sustainable, he'll take it."

Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist at the University of Maryland, said that if forecasts of a possible U.S. military strike force Saddam Hussein into last-minute concessions, the administration will have produced a remarkable achievement in brinksmanship. But an actual strike, he warned, could produce a backlash among Arab populations and their governments.

"The worst scenario is a military strike that does not improve the basic structure in the Middle East," Telhami said, predicting this would mark "the beginning of the end of the Pax Americana of the past decade in the Middle East."

In meetings of his foreign policy advisers, the president has asked probing questions about whether the military can truly target facilities where weapons of mass destruction are produced, about the risk for U.S. military personnel, about the effect on the international coalition. He is, said several advisers, acutely worried about the impact of a military strike on the Middle East peace process.

He also has asked about the potential for civilian casualties, about whether Saddam Hussein will resort to using his own people as human shields. Clinton also has pressed to do more to provide humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people. "He is comfortable with the use of force, but his humanitarian instincts always come up," an official said.

Clinton's self-confidence on decisions like this has evolved with his presidency. This episode marks the fifth confrontation with Iraq. "He was always good, but he has grown in the job," Vice President Gore said Friday. "He is very sure-footed, very focused, very decisive." If Clinton is concerned about selling his policy to the American people, he showed little sign of it when his foreign policy team ran into dissent last week at their Ohio town meeting. When Clinton was informed that the meeting was not going according to plan, he paused only briefly before saying to one of his advisers, "They'll do fine."

Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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