Clinton and Yeltsin enjoy a last hurrah

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The Independent Culture
THE KOSOVO war has blooded Tony Blair. It has proved that he is developing into a national leader of stature. But it has also proved to be an unexpectedly happy swansong for both Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.

The US President had been written off as a trouser-dropping incontinent, who vacillated from opinion poll to opinion poll and used foreign policy, like Shakespeare's Henry V, to distract a giddy populace. Christopher Hitchens' book No One Left to Lie To, taking an elegant chainsaw to what is left of the President's reputation, is already selling well in the States. It rightly attacks Mr Clinton for using cruise missiles in Sudan and Afghanistan to divert attention from the weaknesses of his flesh at home. But suddenly the bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic has redeemed some of the President's claim to be noticed by history. It reminds us that he did depose a dictator in Haiti and did act, better late than never, in Bosnia; and in both cases in defiance of opinion polls.

And in the case of Kosovo, it must be said that Mr Clinton has handled US public opinion well. He managed to fight the war without betraying his Nato allies and despite a vote against it in Congress, by keeping the Republicans divided and public opinion behind him on the high ground of halting "ethnic cleansing".

Meanwhile, President Yeltsin too had been prematurely consigned to the bottle bank of history. Russia was ruled in the name of a living corpse, we were told, just as in the old Communist days when leaders were propped up in front of the cameras and old footage was re-run on state television. He was pickled in vodka, barely capable of speech. And yet the old bear suddenly made Russia relevant again. The country has no military force to speak of, and no money, but Mr Yeltsin was able to exploit old loyalties and diplomatic skills to make negotiations possible. Slav fellow-feeling between the peoples of Russia and Serbia could have given Russia the negative power to prolong the conflict. Instead Mr Yeltsin used it to bring the war to an end, giving Russia a better chance in the long run of breaking into a Balkan settlement and a Balkan economy that would otherwise have been dominated exclusively by the US and Western Europe.

Once again, it should be repeated that it is too early to proclaim as a success the policy of either America or Russia. The refugees are not back home yet. But at least it now seems that the careers of two washed- up has-beens in Washington and Moscow will end not in embarrassment but on a positive and hopeful note.