Two-Front Battle

Debate has rumbled for many months now over whether the Pentagon, living with a much-chopped budget, should still be preparing for the future possibility of two simultaneous wars.

But two wars is not today's superpower contingency problem. It's two battles. And it's the White House, not the Pentagon, that is trying to fight two battles at once. One is Saddam Hussein/chemical/biological weapons. The other is Paula Jones/Asian donors/ Monica Lewinsky/Indian casinos.

To make this point is not to trivialize military contingency planning, but to take it seriously. America has had a two-war worry since World War II put it to the test simultaneously across the Pacific and Atlantic. A decade later, it was unprepared to do anything about a potential breach in the Iron Curtain when revolt against Moscow broke out in Hungary at the same time as Middle East warfare over Suez. Nor was the US prepared to act in 1968 when Soviet troops intervened against a reform Czech leader while the US was tied down in Vietnam. Such are the roots of the Pentagon's two-war fixation.

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In facing its looming two-battle situation, President Clinton's White House team needs to keep a firewall between its domestic and Mideast problems. That's easier said than done. It's what Lyndon Johnson couldn't do with domestic turmoil and Vietnam. It is what Richard Nixon failed to do as Watergate overwhelmed attention to Vietnam and the cold war.

But surely the Clinton White House isn't in such a domestic bind? The economy is strong. And Clinton is riding very high in the polls. But remember, both Johnson and Nixon had been returned to office in landslides. And remember, too, that George Bush had inordinately high poll ratings after his bout with Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi dictator has been compared to the Energizer bunny. And Mr. Clinton's scandal-defense lawyers seem to feel that independent counsel Kenneth Starr is their own Energizer bunny that keeps coming at them. It's easy and probably emotionally satisfying for them to take potshots at Starr. But making an emotive strike at Iraq is high-risk business.

Despite public claims of success, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen have so far succeeded in putting only a few pieces of the Gulf War coalition back in place for any new strike at Iraq.

Most strategic analysts believe that even prolonged aerial attacks with cruise missiles and smart bombs would not obliterate Saddam's presumed stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons and the scud missiles to deliver them. There is near unanimous belief that targeting Saddam would fail. There is little hope at this time of bolstering a cohesive opposition to the Iraqi leader. Nor is there much belief that air strikes would bring about a renewal of UN weapons inspections.

That situation should not lead to public fear. The US and its allies still have massive deterrent capability against any Baghdad aggression. But the situation is so tactically difficult that Mr. Clinton, as commander-in-chief, should be paying full attention to consequences of each alternative policy. And that means he ought to put his scandal-defense team on its own while he concentrates on Saddam rather than Starr. He owes that to voters who give him those poll ratings.

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