Clinton basks in the afterglow of attack

Policing Saddam: Political bonus for President, writes Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online
Washington - After his latest and thus far apparently successful face-down of Saddam Hussein, President Bill Clinton is reaping rich political fruits at home. But, as he and his advisers know well, the Iraqi dictator may not always be such an asset to his re-election campaign.

The immediate domestic response has been utterly predictable. Among international villains, Saddam has long been America's most wanted, and the retaliatory strikes have seen the public rallying to the President, in his role as commander-in-chief. At least three-quarters of the populace approve of the reprisals. Somewhat more surprising, Mr Clinton, Vietnam draft-evader and not a man known for his military prowess, is judged more capable than his Republican opponent, Bob Dole, the respected Second World War hero, of handling the crisis in the Gulf.

For the moment indeed, Saddam has been an unqualified political bonus for Mr Clinton. With one lunge into Kurdish northern Iraq, he has helped banish the President's image of "weak leadership" on matters of foreign policy. He has comprehensively driven Mr Dole from the news, except to the extent the Republican throws his support behind White House handling of the Iraqi crisis.

Last but not least, as some of Mr Clinton's aides privately acknowledge, Saddam's return to the front pages has thrown a veil over the embarrassing story of Dick Morris, the President's disgraced ex-political consultant, and his cavortings with a Washington prostitute. Foreign policy may not be much of an issue in the 1996 election, but if the President holds a 20-point lead or more in the polls, Saddam is surely one of the smaller reasons.

Look a little further ahead however, and the picture changes. The election is still two months off, and nothing is more fickle than American public opinion. If the skirmishing drags on, if Mr Clinton is forced to escalate his response, if a major civilian target is hit or, worst of all, American lives are lost, then the mood may change. Already some in the Republican- led Congress are starting to grumble, about the lack of prior consultation on the part of Mr Clinton, and his inability to resurrect the 1990/91 Gulf war coalition assembled by George Bush.

Not least this is a crisis built on an American diplomatic failure - the collapse of the fragile alliance between the Kurdish factions that had been the centrepiece of US efforts to keep Saddam from rebuilding his influence in the north. With the appeal of the Kurdistan Democratic Party for help from Baghdad the gate was open. With cruise missiles roaring forth from from US ships and bombers, this aspect of the crisis has been overlooked, but perhaps not for much longer.

The greatest difficulty for Mr Clinton will arise if Iraq continues to needle him. The destruction of command and control targets in the South may make Kuwait and Saudi Arabia sleep more soundly, and let off a little of Washington's frustrations. But it hardly addresses the problem of the Kurds.

Saddam almost certainly sees himself as a net winner of the first round, a much strengthened position in the north in exchange for the loss of air defence installations in the south. Accordingly he may choose to ratchet up the pressure, obliging Mr Clinton to order stronger action to maintain the credibility of both his own and his country's leadership. By then, however, international support could have waned even further and the Republicans might have taken the gloves off - reducing his Saddam-induced glow in the public mind to a memory.

Letters, page 15