WASHINGTON — LAST November, President-elect Clinton probably did not think that when he walked into the Oval Office for the first time after Inauguration Day his "To Do" list would rank "Iraq" above "Fix Economy."
But Saddam Hussein's continued defiance of UN sanctions, plus the Bush administration's goodbye bombing raids, have ensured that will be the case.
Some analysts think that in the next few weeks the Iraqi president will be on his best behavior, mounting a charm offensive in an attempt to extract a more conciliatory approach from the untried new US leader. Others say that his adversarial demeanor will continue unchanged as he struts for a Middle Eastern audience.
"Saddam is setting the stage for making the same kinds of game plays with the Clinton administration once they're in office," said outgoing Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger on television over the weekend.
Throughout the confrontations of recent days, Mr. Clinton and transition officials have taken pains to express their support for President Bush's actions. They have said they are prepared to continue armed confrontation with Iraq if Saddam Hussein does not change his ways.
Indeed, as someone whose draft record was an issue during the campaign, Clinton is not politically well-positioned to be conciliatory in the Gulf. Toward moderation
Speculation that Clinton might be softer on Saddam was sparked by an interview last week in the New York Times, in which he said he was not personally obsessed by the Iraqi leader and would judge him on his behavior. Some analysts point to Secretary of State-designate Warren Christopher, who managed negotiations over the Iran hostages for President Carter, as a new official who might favor a less confrontational approach.
Clinton has insisted his remarks in the newspaper interview were misinterpreted, however. His pick for secretary of defense, former Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, supported the Gulf war and seems more hawkish than Mr. Christopher on the uses of US military might.
The policy the Clinton team will be inheriting is a measured one. Unlike the Gulf war itself, in which US-led allies marshalled crushing force to oust Iraq from Kuwait, United States strikes of recent days have caused limited damage.
Their point is more political than military: Obey UN sanctions, or things will get worse. It is a policy of gradualism that some analysts feel is inappropriate for harsh Middle East politics.
"Bush is making a farce out of victory," says Laurie Mylroie of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Saddam Hussein needs to be personally cowed, or replaced, she adds. US restrikes targets
As of this writing, Pentagon officials were calling Monday's US raids mainly restrikes of air defense sites in the southern no-fly zone missed by US bombs last week. In addition, a second wave of attacks came after radars in the northern no-fly zone attempted to track US warplanes.
Iraq must stop struggling against imposition of the no-fly zones, said the White House. The northern zone, above the 36th Parallel, is intended to protect Iraqi Kurds. The southern zone, below the 32nd Parallel, is intended to serve a similar purpose for rebellious Iraqi Shiites.
Further provocative moves "will be dealt with forcefully and without warning," according to an administration statement issued early yesterday. Iraq unable to respond
Meanwhile, Sunday afternoon's attack of a reported nuclear-related facility near Baghdad, Iraq, by 40 cruise missiles was portrayed by US officials as a means to show the Iraqi elite that Saddam is still helpless to stop US bombs.
But the strikes also point out the essentially endless nature of the current United States approach. While they may cause Saddam to back down in the short run, no one is saying they will change the basic "cheat and retreat" Iraqi pattern.
US officials are in a difficult position. Their choices are: to get rid of Saddam or to move toward some kind of accommodation with him. Unable to do the former and unwilling to do the latter, they have opted for a muddling-through approach.
"It's a national shame," says Ms. Mylroie, a harsh critic of the policy.