After the Raid: Clinton's swift action boosts his credibility: The tide of public opinion is turning in favour of the President, writes Rupert Cornwell from Washington

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BILL CLINTON'S presidency is not yet out of the woods. But the swiftly decided, clinically executed missile strike against Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters will help shore up his credibility where it is weakest - as a commander-in-chief who can display forceful US leadership on the world stage.

As President Bush, the Gulf war victor, would be the first to aver, military success is no guarantee of electoral success. But it certainly does no harm. And after the cliffhanging passage of his deficit-cutting package through the Senate last week, the broadly approved rap across President Saddam's knuckles is more evidence that the tide is turning - at the best possible time.

A month ago, as Mr Clinton was being all but written off here, the thought would have seemed preposterous. Now he will enter the coming G-7 summit in Toyko as arguably the Western leader with the soundest political base, with tangible achievements in both domestic and foreign policy.

That, of course, merely bespeaks the dire standing of John Major and Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl, not to mention the turmoil in Italy and in Japan itself. Mr Clinton's own approval ratings remain historically low for a president so soon in his first term, but almost certainly the raid will nudge them in the right direction.

A CNN/USA Today poll yesterday showed a 66 to 23 per cent majority in favour of the attack; indeed a clear majority, of 53-37 per cent, continues to believe Washington should go all the way and have the Iraqi leader assassinated. And while nearly two-thirds of the public declared the strike would not change their view of Mr Clinton, 20 per cent said it made them more confident of his leadership.

But in a city which feeds off perceptions, atmospherics count even more than simple numbers. For the White House no music was sweeter than General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a man hitherto not credited with overwhelming admiration for Mr Clinton, appearing on television to praise the President for his decisiveness: 'I think he acted very skilfully as a commander-in-chief over the last few days, and that bodes well.' For a while at least, in short, the ghost of Jimmy Carter no longer stalks Mr Clinton.

No less encouraging for his well-wishers was the secrecy and speed with which the administration acted. From Bosnia to domestic political nominations the tendency has been for every dithering and every wrinkle in the decision-making process to be painfully acted out in public. Not this time. According to the New York Times, the FBI report with the 'compelling evidence' that the Iraqi regime had been behind the botched attempt last April on Mr Bush's life arrived in the Oval Office last Thursday. Within 24 hours Mr Clinton had made up his mind and given the go-ahead for the reprisal.

Apart from Pentagon planners, only five of his closest White House aides were apparently in the know. Nothing was leaked, and news of the attack early on Saturday evening came as a complete surprise. The President's address an hour later won praise as measured and firm. If authority has been the most elusive quality of this administration, Saturday offered a taste of it.

Not that all scepticism has vanished. Iraq, led by a man who occupies a unique place in US demonology, was an easy choice, some complain. If Baghdad, they argue, then why not Bosnia? Others, mindful of last week's arrest in New York of eight alleged Islamic fundamentalist plotters, fear President Saddam may try to hit back with a terrorist strike of his own here.