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NEWS ANALYSIS : Prompt Move on Iraq Gives Clinton Badly Needed Boost : Politics: Democrats hope for reassessment of his strength as leader. Questions about Bush policy revived.


WASHINGTON — President Clinton's decision to confront Iraq immediately over its dispatch of troops toward the Kuwaiti border provides him with a badly needed political boost in an area--foreign policy--where he has taken some of the toughest licks of his White House tenure.

And Democrats are hoping that the apparent bloodless success in the Persian Gulf coupled with the resignation of Haitian strongman Raoul Cedras can help launch a reassessment of what they contend has been Clinton's underappreciated strengths as a leader.

Making this outcome all the sweeter for Clinton and his partisans is that it serves to revive embarrassing questions for former President George Bush and his advisers--who have been among the foremost critics of Clinton's foreign policy--about their own handling of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf conflict.

Democrats, along with some independent analysts, pointed out that Clinton's decision to face down President Saddam Hussein stands in marked contrast to Bush's initial effort to placate the Iraqi ruler when he threatened Kuwait four years ago. And they also argued that Hussein would not have been able to flex his military muscles except for the Bush Administration's controversial decision to call a halt to Operation Desert Storm before obliterating the Iraqi army.

"Clinton responded to the situation quickly and in a firm and balanced way," said Bruce Jentleson, a Democratic foreign policy consultant and author of "With Friends Like These," a new book on U.S. policy toward Iraq under Bush and former President Ronald Reagan. Clinton "clearly had in mind the lessons of the Bush experience," Jentleson added, referring to efforts by Bush to dissuade Hussein from invading Kuwait in 1990 with offers of friendship.

No one pretends that developments in the Middle East can by themselves reverse the tide of the 1994 congressional campaign, which has been running strongly against the Democrats, or refurbish Clinton's leadership image, which has been particularly tarnished by what critics have derided as hollow rhetoric and false starts in dealing with conundrums abroad, from Haiti to Bosnia.

One reason for caution is Hussein's notorious track record of often failing to match his deeds to his reassuring promises. Moreover, Clinton still faces significant political risks in Haiti as U.S. forces turn to the sensitive challenge of restoring democratic rule in that troubled nation.

Another reality is that foreign policy issues do not ordinarily greatly influence the voting decisions of American voters, who in this campaign are mostly preoccupied with such domestic concerns as crime and taxes.

"Whatever effect this has is likely to be marginal and not last long," said John Mueller, a University of Rochester specialist on the impact of foreign policy on presidential standing.

Certainly Clinton has a long way to go to modify the current unfavorable impressions of his performance at home and abroad. A Times Poll last month showed that only 36% of the 1,340 adults interviewed nationwide approved of his foreign policy record, compared with 42% who approved of his overall job performance. Only 17% said that they had a good idea of the President's goals abroad.

"Right now, if he (Clinton) stopped a meteor from hitting Earth with his bare hands, I'm not sure he'd get any credit for it," said Ed Sarpolus, an independent pollster in Michigan, where Democratic candidates are trailing in races for governor and the U.S. Senate. But as a result of the Iraq events, Sarpolus said, "Clinton may be able to get people to pay attention to things that he's done."

And Democratic pollster Mark Mellman suggested that the effect of the successes abroad would reach beyond foreign policy, in part because these results contrast so sharply with the heavy dose of criticism he has endured.

"The President showed strength and resolve, which not only improves people's evaluation of his foreign policy but which also reveals something about his character which transcends the specific foreign policy accomplishments and comes at a time when the national mood is depressed and negative," Mellman said.

"It's a doubleheader victory," he said. "Maybe it's not quite morning in America, but at least I think I can see the sun rising."

Clinton's show of resolve in the Persian Gulf brought him praise even from Bush, who only a few months ago was lambasting his Democratic successor for his "stop-and-start policy of hesitancy abroad."

But perhaps just as gratifying from Clinton's point of view is that Hussein's massing of troops near the Kuwaiti border put Bush and other Republicans on the defensive as they sought to explain their actions taken at the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

In an address Monday to the American Gas Assn., Bush explained that if he had carried on the war to force Hussein from power he would have sundered the international coalition he had assembled to assault Iraq and could have plunged the United States into a Vietnam-like quagmire.

"How the heck are we going to get out without a huge loss of life?" he asked rhetorically.

Responding to that same point, Dick Cheney, Bush's defense secretary and a 1996 GOP presidential prospect, said in an interview on NBC-TV's "Today" show that "disposing of Saddam Hussein . . . would have taken a long time and it was something that nobody else in the coalition was signed on for."

Asked why the United States had not inflicted more damage on the Republican Guard, the shock troops of the Iraqi army, Cheney said the United States had in fact "significantly reduced" Hussein's military strength and pointed out that the Iraqi ruler had had three years to rebuild.

"Now you can say the war should have gone on longer," he said. "But we had, in fact, achieved our objectives, what Congress had approved and what the American people had signed up to do."

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