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.