Is Clinton Trying to Have It Both Ways on Gulf War?

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

TO apply Bette Davis's warning to the current political campaign: We better tighten our seat belts because we're in for a bumpy ride - particularly the candidates and, most particularly, Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton's tribulations in trying to respond to allegations about extramarital relations, dodging the Vietnam war, and land-deal improprieties will not go away. He may think so. But they won't. Now to that add something new: Clinton's Gulf war problem.

An Evans and Novak column brought this to the surface a few days ago, first referring to a Monitor breakfast of last September when Clinton "unequivocally described himself as a Desert Storm supporter."

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The column then goes on to further comment: "Clinton's self-portrayal cannot be minimized. It helped him win the 'politicians primary' as the one candidate able to confront President Bush on what then seemed a transcendent issue. His stand was so pleasing to pro-Israel contributors that it enabled him to become the easy and early winner of the 'money primary.' "

The columnists then cite quotes from the Associated Press which they contend indicate Clinton was really ambivalent in his support of the Gulf war - certainly not the kind of position he now alleges and "not the kind of record to permit him to wrap himself in the laurels of Desert Storm."

In listening to the tape of the Clinton breakfast I find that the Arkansas governor began by making a short statement about himself in which he asserted flatly and without any further embroidery: "I supported the president's policy in the Persian Gulf."

That was his position - volunteered, not offered in response to any question. And he would have left it there. Indeed, Clinton's hawkishness on the Gulf war has, up to now, become a part of the conventional wisdom surrounding the campaign.

Put that up against a Clinton quote in the Arkansas Gazette of Jan. 15, which has the governor saying he agreed with Arkansas' two Democratic senators, who wanted to wait for sanctions to work and voted against war. This account goes on to quote Clinton saying: "I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote, but I agree with the arguments the minority made."

The exchange between reporters and Clinton at the breakfast is instructive on where Clinton really stood on the war. To a reporter's question: "You say you supported the president's Gulf policy. At what point? Before the shooting started?", there was this brief answer: "Oh, yes."

Then the question: "Would you have voted for the authorization given by Congress - had you had that opportunity?" And the Clinton answer:

"Yes. It seemed to me that our country did a great job of getting a concerted position of the United Nations [on] a matter of significance. And we might debate the tactics on wait longer or go now until the cows come home - and either side might be right - but it seemed to me that we should support the UN resolution."

Throw into this assessment of Clinton's position this AP quote cited by Evans-Novak: "I would agree with the arguments of the people in the minority on the resolution that we should give sanctions more time and maybe even explore a full embargo - before we go to war."

Was this the position of a candidate who could warn the Democratic Party, as Clinton did, that Republicans would remind America that "Kerrey opposed Operation Desert Storm even after the conflict began"?

Wasn't Clinton too equivocal, even slightly dovish on the Gulf war to make such a charge? And is he, again, the Gulf war supporter that he has been able to portray himself as being up to now?

At the breakfast a reporter who was, as the rest of us were, assuming that we were listening to a "hawk" on the Gulf war, asked this question: "Do you think, Governor, that this is a reasonable issue for you to debate with your rivals for the nomination?" Here Clinton said that "it may come up."

Right here I want to say that I'm not asserting that if Clinton really had some reservations about the US entering the Gulf war, this position was wrong - or that in a new climate of public opinion it would be unpopular. What I am saying is that Clinton, by giving a "hawk" impression on the war, has once again raised questions about his integrity.

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