WASHINGTON — BY slamming cruise missiles into Baghdad in retaliation for a plot to kill his predecessor, President Clinton has struck a blow that may help overcome his public image of wavering leadership and could raise his stature in the eyes of the United States armed forces.
American opinion typically rallies around its leadership at times of military action, and Mr. Clinton seemed to consciously invoke battles of the past as he explained his decision Saturday night. "From the first days of our revolution, America's security has depended on this message: Don't tread on us," he said.
At the same time, the retaliatory strike was not a dangerous one for the US in military terms. By using unmanned guided missiles to attempt to destroy the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service, Clinton made sure there would be no US casualties as a result of the raid.
This is in direct contrast to President Reagan's bombing of Libya in 1986, in response to the killing of US servicemen in a terrorist attack on a West Berlin disco. At the time the Pentagon leadership did not yet have full confidence in the accuracy of cruise missiles, and so the strike was carried out by manned bombers, some of which had to fly a tortuous route to North Africa from British bases. One F/B-111 was shot down or crashed, killing its crew.
In this weekend's bombing, the US Tomahawk cruise missile was able to deliver 23 500-pound warheads on target without even an aircraft carrier in the region. The missiles were fired from the cruiser Chancellorsville in the Gulf and the destroyer Peterson in the Red Sea.
"Its main advantage is it does not put US pilots at risk," said Secretary of Defense Les Aspin at a briefing for reporters Saturday night, as he explained the choice of cruise missiles for the operation.
At press time, there were few details available on the results of the strike. Pentagon officials said preliminary indications were that an undetermined number of missiles landed in the target area. Full bomb-damage assessment could take days, and in any case the move was described at the Pentagon as more a symbolic wake-up call to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein than an attempt to wreak extensive damage on an intelligence agency compound.
"You should not expect to see the entire complex knocked down," said Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Colin Powell.
The official Iraqi News Agency reported that Saddam had called the raid "cowardly aggression," and claimed that at least four civilians had been killed, including a prominent artist and her husband.
General Powell, in a "Meet the Press" interview yesterday morning, said he could neither confirm nor deny casualty reports. The night timing of the bombing was chosen in order to minimize casualties, he said.
While there was no indication that the attack had been deliberately timed for domestic political impact, it did come at a time when Clinton's leadership image in Washington was beginning to show improvement after months of decline. His economic plan, which once seemed in deep trouble, squeaked through the Senate last week. The administration is close to a resolution of the troublesome issue of gays in the military - though gay rights proponents decry the developing "don't ask, don't tell" compromise as a n abrogation of Clinton's promise to allow gays to openly serve.
The raid also shows the armed forces that just because Clinton avoided service in the Vietnam War does not mean he shirks from all use of force.
The White House had waited to order the strike until top US officials were convinced that the alleged Iraqi attempt to assassinate ex-President Bush during his April 14-16 visit to Kuwait was genuine. Over the weekend, senior officials laid out their evidence for reporters at White House briefings:
* A powerful bomb hidden in a Toyota Land Cruiser was smuggled across the Iraq/Kuwait border on April 12. Forensic experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation said the bomb was similar to those previously recovered from known Iraqi sources.
* Two of the main suspects now on trial in Kuwait said they had been recruited by men they thought were representatives of Iraqi intelligence.
* One of the suspects said specifically that the job they were supposed to carry out was Bush's assassination.
* Secret intelligence sources indicate that the Iraqi government at "the highest levels" plotted to carry out the plan, according to the White House.
In his first remarks on Iraq after the election, Clinton had struck a tone some considered an attempt to offer an olive branch to Saddam. There was none of that over the weekend. In his TV address, Clinton reiterated that his quarrel is with the Iraqi leadership, not its people.
"Saddam Hussein has demonstrated repeatedly that he will resort to terrorism or aggression if left unchecked," the president said.