Saddam is good news for Clinton

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WHATEVER its outcome, the new showdown with Saddam Hussein seems bound to work to the advantage of President Bill Clinton, casting his foreign policy in a more resolute light and perhaps bolstering his and his party's popularity before next month's mid-term elections.

Unlike Haiti, Somalia and Bosnia, Iraq is an issue on which American politicians are virtually united. Thus far, even usually unrelenting critics of the President's indecisive style such as the Senate Republican leader Bob Dole have thrown their weight behind the White House. The lone dissenting voice has been that of Ross Perot.

However implausibly, the Texan billionaire - who plainly intends to play a key role in the campaign - has accused Mr Clinton of engineering a crisis. 'This is rotten, this is wrong,' Mr Perot has said. 'We're about to have an election, right? This is the old game. The first war (Haiti) didn't get him a bump in the polls, now let's try a second one.'

Otherwise, Washington's firm and speedy response to the Iraqi troop build-up had been widely praised, even before the announcement by Baghdad's Ambassador to the UN yesterday that the Iraqi forces were being moved away from the Kuwait border.

As George Bush knows better than anyone, popularity boosts from besting Saddam Hussein can be shortlived - but a President so often accused of wavering has acted without hesitation. If the climbdown is genuine, he will be given much of the credit.

Helping Mr Clinton, of course, has been the universal exasperation here with President Saddam. No foreign cause is more popular with the American public than defeating him. However, specialists can be found who claim Kuwait is not worth defending.

Unlike General Aideed in Somalia or even the Haitian generals, the Iraqi leader is perceived here unequivocally as a villain, one of the few left in a confusing world.

Indeed, that belief could work to Mr Clinton's advantage in another way. The most audible criticism of US Gulf policy refers not to 1994, but to the Bush administration's failure to finish off President Saddam as a military threat three years ago - which is now obliging the costly dispatch of at least 36,000 US troops to confront almost identical Iraqi trouble-making today. That, in turn, could tarnish the reputations of at least two, and possibly three, Republican rivals of Mr Clinton for the presidency in 1996.

The former defence secretary Dick Cheney and former secretary of state James Baker, both wondering whether to run for the White House, were in the inner circle which chose to halt the ground war after just 100 hours, with President Saddam's forces routed. So, too, was General Colin Powell, whose political intentions are the object of intense speculation. All three, however, largely stake their claims on the basis of foreign policy expertise and above all the victory in the Gulf.

Of late, however, that victory has looked somewhat less than complete. The decision to avoid what General Powell called 'a turkey shoot' is being described as a mistake.