Leading Article: A lesson Blair can learn, even from lame duck Clinton

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The Independent Culture
HOBBLE HOBBLE. Quack, quack. It has been Bill Clinton's week, and not a bad one for a lame duck. It has demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of modern democratic leadership. With his authority draining away at home, not just because of his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky but because he is coasting to the end of his unrenewable second term, he has still been able to mobilise the symbolic power of the US presidency.

He was not much use in Russia, a bit like a distant relative calling with particularly bad timing at a house riven by family feuding. The best he could do was signify by his presence that the world has an interest in the Russian crisis and that the west is ready to prop up the economy if any of it can be made to stand up.

But in Ireland, Mr Clinton's visit is undoubtedly valuable. As Tony Blair observed, and despite Mr Clinton's early posturing for the benefit of the Irish American lobby, no US president has done more for peace in Northern Ireland. The coming together of the governments of Britain, Ireland and the United States behind a set of common principles provided the condition for breakthrough on Good Friday this year. And Mr Clinton's telephone diplomacy, calling the key players at all hours of day and night, helped coax them towards agreement. His presence in Ireland, then, gives a further push to that intangible momentum which has been so important in keeping the peace process going in defiance of the logical incompatibility of the two sides' positions. It is "only" symbolism of course, but symbolism matters in the wake of an atrocity such as the Omagh bombing.

This has been a week which exposed the strengths and weaknesses of democratic responses to terrorism. Mr Blair and Mr Clinton are good at empathy, even though there are times when both men are a little too transparent. In Omagh last week Mr Blair was seen switching on and off his mourning face for the cameras. Yesterday, Mr Clinton gave a heartfelt speech without notes, but we know too much about his easy emotionalism to suspend disbelief altogether.

In this respect, the Monica affair has made it harder to take the president seriously, even when his words are well-crafted and - at the moment they are uttered at any rate - sincere. Equally, it is easy to be cynical about Mr Clinton's motives for the timing of his visit but as one shop worker said: "Look, he's taken the time and the thought to see us here. Who cares why he's doing it?"

Modern democracies are less good, however, at dealing with terrorists. Mr Blair's initial response to Omagh was exactly right. He wrote a thoughtful articlewhich set out why the Government should not simply "take out" the bombers, and insisted: "We must be democratic in the means we deploy."

There was an awkward contrast between these sane words and Mr Clinton's opinion-poll-fuelled cruise missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan. There was also a disjunction with the Irish prime minister's promise to rush "Draconian" measures through the Dublin parliament, and it was unfortunate that Mr Blair allowed himself to be bounced out of his original position.

There is a logical problem with this week's emergency sittings of the British and Irish parliaments, which is that it suggests that anti-terrorism legislation has not been tough enough for the past 24 years. But there is a larger moral and practical problem, which is that terrorism always feeds on a sense of injustice. Passing laws which avowedly contain an element of rough justice is, therefore, more likely to augment than diminish terrorism.

That applies, in triplicate, to Mr Clinton's recourse to violence in Sudan and Afghanistan. It is a danger of focus-group politics, the brand of statesmanship which has succeeded the Thatcher-Reagan era on both sides of the Atlantic. Politics is less and less fought out at four- or five- yearly intervals, when voters are asked to pass broad verdicts on whole periods of administration. Even a lame duck politician like Mr Clinton has his day-to-day policy dictated as much by opinion research as by his notion of what might be in the country's best interest.

There are two of the President's dicta which have particularly impressed Mr Blair. One is that the most powerful person today is the member of a focus group. The other is that, in order to be re-elected, you must never forget those voters who switched to elect you in the first place. If there is a lesson of this week, it is that democratic leaders such as Mr Blair should rely more on their judgement and less on the need to be seen to be "doing something" by focus groups of New Labour switchers.