Waco: Clinton's core of indecision exposed in the glare of apocalypse: Patrick Cockburn in Washington finds fears about the President's judgement confirmed

'WE DESTROYED that village to save it,' said an American officer in Vietnam in 1969, in words rightly derided at the time by Bill Clinton and other opponents of the war. Yet in justifying the fiasco at Waco last week, President Clinton and his staff began to sound curiously like the military spokesman of a quarter of a century ago. In backing the FBI assault by saying they feared for the sect's children, they skated over the fact that their misjudgement led to the children's incineration.

It is not just that the White House got it wrong at Waco, but also that the mistakes made and the justifications produced seemed to sum up all the weaknesses of Mr Clinton's administration. The decision to go in at all confirmed doubts about his judgement, which have been hovering during his first 100 days in office. His explanation, that the main reason he and his Attorney- General, Janet Reno, decided to end the siege was because the children were being sexually molested, was officially denied by the FBI. This was Bill Clinton as George Bush tried and failed to paint him last year: an opportunist who makes mistakes and is episodically truthful. Waco by itself will not sink Mr Clinton. It is too early in his administration. But he cannot afford many more weeks like the one that has just gone by. Not only did he preside over the apocalypse at Waco, but also his economic stimulus package was defeated in the Senate, and it was increasingly evident that he did not have a policy for Bosnia. 'The President has been in a blind stagger for several days,' the New York Times said.

The blind stagger will probably not continue much longer. Mr Clinton showed during the scandal over Gennifer Flowers, which almost sank him in the Democratic primaries, that he is good at bouncing back. After a bad start to his administration, when he failed to find an Attorney-General who had not employed an illegal alien, he successfully took the offensive with his budget and economic programme in February.

Most of what has happened since Mr Clinton was inaugurated has, if anything, confirmed Mr Bush's picture of his opponent. Decisive action to help the Bosnian Muslims might momentarily lift him, but the White House knows that enthusiasm in the US for military involvement in the Balkans is very limited.

The key change of the past week is that the US media, by and large protective of Mr Clinton during the campaign and in his first days in office, are beginning to eye him more suspiciously.

The New York Times editorials, always sceptical, have been increasingly negative. At the end of last week, it said: 'With Janet Reno's help, he made Waco a synonym for fiasco. On the economic stimulus package, Mr Clinton and his staff managed to make the Senate Republicans, usually a milling school of minnows, look like a pack of tiger sharks.'

Some of the poor publicity Mr Clinton is receiving now is a reaction to exaggerated expectations. But there is no doubt that his first 100 days in office have produced fewer reforms and more mistakes than his supporters expected or his opponents hoped.

The first damaging error was his nomination of Zoe Baird as Attorney-General. Ms Baird withdrew after admitting she had illegally employed two servants and failed to pay their tax. What made the row worse was that she was the 11th lawyer to be appointed to the Clinton cabinet, which contained more millionaires than any under Mr Bush or Ronald Reagan. Accusations increased that Mr Clinton was out of touch with his middle-class voters. The early setbacks could be written off as teething trouble. It was the promise of economic change that had won Mr Clinton the election. His economic plan, announced on 17 February, was sculpted to please Wall Street and his supporters by cutting the deficit and stimulating the economy. Presented to both houses of Congress, it relaunched the Clinton presidency.

It also marked a high point. Immediately after Mr Clinton spoke, the powerful lobbies were silent. In the face of promises of radical change in the health service, doctors, pharmaceutical companies and insurers, all of whom to stand to lose, were mute. This was more a question of biding their time than fear of Mr Clinton. It also reflected a growing belief in Washington that, if you bided your time, the new man in the White House would always make a deal with any serious interest group.

By the end of March the swiftness with which serious opposition would provoke a Clinton flip-flop was worrying his supporters. For instance, Bruce Babbitt, the Interior Secretary, wanted to charge big graziers and miners a more commercial price for exploiting public land. Threatened by some western senators, Mr Clinton claimed that his economic package was in jeopardy, and immediately dropped the plan. 'I don't think I've ever seen a white flag get put up so fast,' one environmentalist said.

The most effective defence of Mr Clinton by his supporters is to admit that he is an opportunist, but to argue that so were Lincoln and FDR. American politics is so fragmented that only a skilful opportunist can make the necessary compromises to create a coalition of interests capable of effecting change. But in his first 100 days, and particularly in the past week, Mr Clinton has looked much more like a man who so likes to compromise that he will make few dents in the status quo.