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Dole Does About-Face, Supports Clinton Action on Iraq

Politics: GOP candidate offers only veiled criticism in remarks to American Legion. President calls to thank him.


SALT LAKE CITY — For days, Bob Dole and his campaign surrogates issued sharp criticisms of President Clinton's policies on Iraq, but with actual hostilities underway, the GOP presidential nominee abruptly shifted course Tuesday.

In a speech to the American Legion convention here, which had been scheduled, in part, as a forum at which to criticize Clinton's foreign policy record, Dole offered only a veiled critique, saying of the U.S. cruise missile strike against Iraq, "I trust this is the beginning of decisive action to limit the power and arrogance of [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein.

"Our thoughts and prayers at this moment are with our men and women in uniform who were sent on a difficult mission above the skies of Iraq," he added. "Saddam Hussein is an outlaw. He's a tyrant. He's a butcher, and we cannot tolerate any additional action by him in that part of the world."

Similar remarks--supportive of American troops and only mildly critical of the Clinton administration--earned Dole an appreciative telephone call from the president Tuesday morning.

But Dole's remarks contrasted sharply with tough criticism that his foreign policy advisor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), had offered on the candidate's behalf Monday. McCain then accused Clinton of practicing a "feckless, photo-op foreign policy" and of "failing the test" of American resolve.

On Monday, Dole had endorsed McCain's remarks and had characterized Clinton's performance on Iraq as "weak leadership."

The change in tone dramatizes the dilemma that a foreign policy crisis poses for a presidential challenger: Patriotism dictates support for the commander in chief, but political imperatives require a search for some opening to weaken the incumbent.

Dole's position is particularly ticklish because of his own history with Hussein. A few months before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he led a congressional delegation to Baghdad for a meeting with Hussein that was widely seen as an attempt, inspired by then-President Bush, to improve relations with Iraq by offering diplomatic blandishments and agricultural credits.

More than most congressional leaders, Dole has quickly and almost unequivocally risen to the defense of the president--any president--when U.S. forces have been committed to combat. Besides strongly supporting Republican presidents, he was a supporter of Clinton's use of troops in Haiti and Bosnia-Herzegovina, even when some Democrats expressed opposition.

The Republican candidate has freely criticized Clinton's vacillation on foreign affairs--but once the ships set sail and the planes are launched, "we have one president at a time," Dole said in December in justifying his support for the Bosnian peacekeeping mission. "He's the commander in chief."

So Tuesday's remarks were fully in character when he played the part of loyal opposition leader, telling a sea of veterans, "We must be decisive in confronting this threat and humbling this tyrant."

A senior aide said Dole's early criticism came before Clinton decided to act and was therefore within bounds. And he suggested that Dole would not hesitate to resume his criticism once the hostilities are over.

"It is completely appropriate to discuss the predicate that leads up to the case, and after the fact it is certainly appropriate to analyze the event," said Dole campaign communications director John Buckley. "But during the event--at least over the next 24 to 48 hours--his comments will be confined to issuing his statement of support for the armed forces and also talking about the desired outcome in Iraq."

Neither presidential candidate, however, is likely to benefit much from the latest Iraq crisis, said scholar John Mueller of the University of Rochester in New York, author of "War, Presidents and Public Opinion."

"There's not much pay dirt in this for Dole, unless it becomes a real catastrophe," Mueller said. "And it probably won't do Clinton much good either. It'll be long forgotten by election day."

La Ganga reported from Salt Lake City and Broder from Washington.

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