Proteus as president: That is the story thus far of William Jefferson Clinton in the White House. Like the minor Greek god of change, the president has resisted efforts to cast him and his presidency in a specific, unmalleable form that cannot be redefined when need be.
That may soon change. The continuing search for a clear definition of Clinton as leader is moving toward resolution because of a struggle over emerging indications that the Islamic Republic of Iran was behind the bombing deaths of 19 U.S. airmen last June in Saudi Arabia.
Those indications pose a sharp dilemma for the president: What does Clinton do if clear evidence surfaces that Iranian officials -- in a wanton act of murder by proxy -- helped Saudi extremists carry out the deadly bombing attack on the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Dhahran?
Recent published accounts put Saudi suspects in touch with Iranian officials shortly before the bombing. These disclosures follow a flurry of unpublicized visits by senior foreign officials to Washington to gather information on a U.S. military retaliation they sense is coming and its consequences for their nations. And in Germany earlier this month, a trial judge unveiled the Iranian government's role in the murder of four Kurdish dissidents in Berlin.
Figuring out how far Clinton will go on Iran is suddenly the number-one global diplomatic guessing game.
Clinton himself cannot know at this point. But the looming conflict over how the evidence will be presented to and assessed by the president is a struggle over conflicting values and concepts of justice rather than over the techniques of policymaking and diplomacy.
The professional mandate of diplomacy is to postpone conflict as long as possible or minimize it to encourage a quick return to the prevailing situation. Diplomats are paid to pursue general principles.
But the case of responding to Iran's depredations is rapidly slipping out of the hands of the diplomats into the grasp of law enforcement officials, who are paid to pursue and punish specific criminals. Usually they want action against malefactors by yesterday if not sooner.
Clinton and the military leadership that would have to carry out any punishment he decrees hold the balance between these contending schools. Clinton's first-term record on the use of force abroad in pursuit of justice must be a cause of concern for those who believe Iran should receive decisive punishment.
Under the policy label of "dual containment" Clinton has achieved an uneasy tactical stalemate with Iran and Iraq. But Iraq is making progress in its campaign to erode economic and travel sanctions, and military strikes against Iran would cause the status quo to unravel there as well.
Clinton authorized a cruise missile strike against Iraq in 1994 to retaliate for an unsuccessful plot against George Bush. But he carefully tailored it to minimize enemy casualties as well as avoiding risk to Americans.
The unmanned missiles hit Iraq's intelligence headquarters late at night, killing janitors rather than the officials who plotted against Bush. Subsequent military responses to Iraqi misdeeds and a pathetic failed covert attempt by the CIA to overthrow Saddam Hussein were similarly hedged.
This raises fears among Saudi officials and others that Clinton may launch "pinprick raids" against Iran as retaliation. These would infuriate the Iranians and tempt them to lash out locally, without bringing about a change of behavior or regime in Tehran.
These fears help explain the Saudi ambivalence in cooperating with the FBI investigation into the Dhahran bombing. The Saudis do not want to wind up bearing most of the costs of limited U.S. strikes that may relieve pressure on Clinton at home but do not remove the ayatollahs from power.
The Pentagon began reviewing potential target lists inside Iran immediately after the Dhahran attack. Last July, then-Defense Secretary William J. Perry told a group of Dole campaign advisers that such lists already had been presented to the White House for possible action.
The target lists reportedly center on identified terrorist training centers, which would be easy targets for cruise strikes. Terror camps however are also easy to evacuate at a moment's notice. They can be repaired or replaced far more easily than major pieces of Iran's oil industry, which Clinton is no more likely to attack than was Ronald Reagan in 1986, when he ordered an air attack on terrorist camps in Libya.
Moammar Gadhafi still rules Libya, and the United Nations has determined his agents carried out the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. "Clinton has to think about what happened when Reagan tried retaliation on the cheap," says Henry Schuler, an international oil expert who was consulted by the Air Force on targets in Libya in 1986.
Schuler advocates extending the naval blockade now in force against Iraq to cover Iran as well if Iranian sponsorship of the Khobar Towers massacre is established. He does not underestimate the turmoil this would create in oil markets or the difficulties with America's allies. But he prefers those problems to managing the downside of new pinprick raids in the gulf. He makes a good case.
If Iran did commit murder by proxy, the one option that Clinton does not have is to do nothing. The ayatollahs, and Saddam, have handily survived four years of dual containment. Justice and retribution, rather than policy and diplomacy, must be the driving force in the decisions Clinton will soon have to make.