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NEWS ANALYSIS : Clinton Courted U.S. Voters With Mideast Swing

October 30, 1994|DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUWAIT CITY — It was the final moment of the central strategic stop on President Clinton's three-day trek through the Middle East. At the foot of the Air Force One stairs, Syria's president, Hafez Assad, bade farewell to his guest. Leaning close, Assad offered a parting word: "Much success in the coming elections."

The Syrian president does not have to run for office--his far-spread security services keep him in power--but having dealt with U.S. presidents for a generation, he knows that foreign policy and domestic politics move down closely linked tracks in America. Those linkages were seldom more clear than in this most recent trip.

The cynical view that Clinton traveled to the Middle East solely for political reasons is almost certainly wrong. Finding a way toward peace in the region has been a leading concern of Clinton's, as of all of his recent predecessors. Having promised Jordan's King Hussein and Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin months ago that he would come to the region when they signed a peace treaty, he had little choice but to follow through.

But while the focus of Clinton's attention remained on foreign policy, domestic political considerations were never far from his mind or, as Assad's comment indicated, the minds of those he met.

Reminders came repeatedly. There was Hillary Rodham Clinton leaving Jerusalem near midnight, after her husband's speech to the Israeli Knesset, to fly 16 hours in order to attend a Hollywood Women's Political Caucus luncheon Friday. And there was the President summoning reporters after his meeting with the emir of Kuwait to deliver a brief statement on the latest statistics from back home showing continued economic growth.

Above all, there was the schedule. White House officials put together a six-nation, seven-city tour including two major speeches, a visit to U.S. troops, attendance at a formal peace treaty signing ceremony and a lengthy, high-stakes negotiating session with Assad. It was a 95-hour marathon that left the President puffy-faced, red-eyed and visibly weary.

Over-scheduling Clinton has been one of the Administration's most common problems. But this schedule exceeded even the usual exhaustive standard. The reason was simple--politics.

In characteristic fashion, Clinton refused to limit his objectives for the trip. In similarly characteristic fashion, he insisted on a double-time pace to minimize his absence from the domestic political circuit in these closing days before next week's midterm elections.

The events would begin with an elaborate photo opportunity as the President attended the signing of the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state in 15 years. The ceremony was in Jordan, so a visit with King Hussein was in order.

The stop in Damascus was added, Clinton said, because "if I was coming to the region, I felt I had to do Syria."

Of course, Clinton could not visit the Arabs without stopping in Israel. Nor could he go everywhere else in the region without seeing Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, aides argued. They also believed that the President should not pass up a visit to U.S. troops deployed in Kuwait to deter an Iraqi attack--even if the stop meant that Clinton would have to also visit Saudi and Kuwaiti leaders.

Sleep, apparently, was of less importance. Clinton arrived in Cairo, his first stop on the trip, about 1 a.m. Wednesday and, after arrival ceremonies, stayed up until nearly 2:30 chatting with Mubarak. He was awakened less than four hours later to prepare for a formal meeting with Mubarak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat before flying on to Jordan for the ceremony marking the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty.

That afternoon, Clinton dozed on the 45-minute flight from Aqaba to Amman. On arrival, he kept King Hussein and Queen Noor waiting at the airport for 15 minutes--a slip-up in protocol that aides did not deny was caused by his nap. Hours later, after speaking to the Jordanian Parliament, Clinton held another late-night session, this one with Hussein, that lasted well into the wee hours. He then arose at dawn for the flight to Damascus to meet with Assad.

"I'm on my last leg. I'm really tired," he told reporters that afternoon on the flight from Damascus to Tel Aviv. At that point, he still had 36 hours to go.

Despite the exhaustion, the trip provided Clinton with some clear benefits. "I came away, frankly, with a much clearer idea of what things the United States can do and, indeed, what we must try to do to help make peace successful," Clinton said.

The trip, he said, gave him a chance "to see firsthand the potential for a new Middle East, the real potential for peace and the yearning for it."

"These are all things that you know, but until you see it, it's a very different thing indeed," Clinton said. "I have seen it on the streets of every place I have been, and in the eyes of the people."

But the impact of the trip was far less than it could have been.

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