Commentary: Why An Iraq Attack Offers No Relief For Clinton

It's a truism of American politics: When a President gets in a jam, he often retreats to the foreign policy arena, hoping to return a conquering hero. But Bill Clinton is turning that axiom on its head.

Clinton's popular domestic-policy agenda has resuscitated his job-approval ratings in the wake of allegations that he had an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. But the President's charmed life seems to end at the water's edge. As he heads for a military showdown with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Clinton is faltering in his campaign to keep unqualified congressional support and get the American people behind him. A mid-February Gallup Poll shows only 41% of the public favors an assault on Iraq, a decline of nine points in two weeks.

WAVERING SUPPORT. Clearly, Clinton would rather be talking about child care. "There's nothing he relishes like the domestic issues," says Brent Scowcroft, George Bush's National Security Adviser. "I still don't think he's interested in foreign policy."

As Clinton agreed to let U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan make a last-minute diplomatic mission to Baghdad on Feb. 20, congressional Republicans have sensed White House weakness. No longer willing to mute their criticism, GOP leaders have begun blasting Clinton and his national security team for an incoherent policy. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) scolded the President for having no short-term plan to cripple the Iraqi strongman's power bases and no long-term strategy to undermine his regime.

Even Democrats are second-guessing Clinton's game plan. Former President Jimmy Carter says an attack would be counterproductive and make Saddam "a hero" to Arabs.

With public and Capitol Hill support wavering, the White House launched a marketing campaign on Feb. 17 with a Presidential speech at the Pentagon. One day later, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, and National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger all attended a televised town hall meeting at Ohio State University. But the event backfired; the trio was hooted and jeered. Republicans lost no time declaring it a public relations disaster.

But even a successful town meeting wouldn't compensate for a flawed policy toward Iraq. The Clintonites claim their goal is to limit Saddam's capability to produce chemical and biological weapons, but they admit that even a massive bombing raid won't eliminate the weapons entirely.

And they don't have an alternate strategy to push out Saddam, either. Attempts to strengthen Saddam's enemies, meanwhile, have been hampered by factionalism among Iraq's Kurdish rebels. And a clandestine U.S. operation to topple him appears to have been halted. The Administration "thrashes around, but isn't solving anything," says Kenneth M. Pollack of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

With no easy options for dealing with Saddam, it's little wonder that the President seemed ill at ease during his Pentagon appearance. Cynics charge he's merely adopting a Wag the Dog strategy--creating a foreign flap to distract attention from a sex scandal. But the truth is, this President is better off picking fights with Republicans over the minimum wage than battling foreign dictators over U.N. inspections. Not only is he more comfortable, but victory is more likely.

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