Leading Article: He should go. He won't go. And we'll be the worse for it

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THE FIRST casualty of America's impeachment crisis is Tony Blair. As Bill Clinton hunkered down in Washington, Britain's Prime Minister came on ever more strongly in London as the military "victor" in the battle against Iraq.

It is a triumphalism he will have cause to regret. The bombing of Saddam Hussein was almost certainly not determined by Clinton's woes; but the high rhetoric of war and danger uttered while the Americans - with the British in tow - unleashed their might on Iraq night after night, was little more than obscene.

"Politics has become a substitute for violence," said Vice-President Al Gore on the White House lawn in fury after the impeachment vote. But whatever politics has become, violence is still unsubstituted - at least so far as the West "punishing" a Third World country is concerned.

But then it is the sheer unreality of events that has marked more than anything else the events of the last four days; the gap between the grave words of war and the arms-length, fully televised bombardment that followed; the distance between the magnitude of impeachment and the offence of philandering. To the politicians concerned, this may seem the most important, the most historic moment of their lives: Blair in his war bunker, and the Republicans taking over the articles of impeachment to the Senate. To the public at large, however, it has all the elements of boys playing games.

It is the gap between political reality and public perception which may well be the most important aspect of these events. Of course, there are real reasons for impeaching the President, just as there are real reasons for trying to destroy Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. The reality is that a US president in the eyes of the majority of people in Congress has lied under oath and acted to pervert the course of justice, however sordidly irrelevant the actual case.

It is all very well for Clinton's supporters to go on about how partisan has been the occasion, and how personalised. It has been partisan, in the very worst possible way. And it has displayed a personal loathing of President Clinton that is beyond any fair or reasonable manner of conducting affairs. But then politics in America has always been passionately partisan. The last president to be impeached, Andrew Johnson, was tried by the Senate on entirely political grounds. It has been a myth of Reagan and now Clinton to talk of consensus and "pulling together". Politics is about power and when power is up for grabs - as it always is in the final term of a president and even more so when that President has opened his flank for the attack - then the politics will get rougher.

Clinton's fault in these terms has not been to be too liberal, nor even that he sinned, but to have given the impression that he didn't mind too much about it all. Given half a chance, he would bolt for the door and be up to his old tricks again as soon as no one was looking. The Republicans are determined that will not happen. Instead of encouraging censure as a painful lesson, Clinton's supporters have promoted it as a means of escape. And that, on present mood, the Congressional majority will not allow.

All this need not worry the US voter too much. America is a country of peculiar balances of power and unique resilience. It can survive a period of high temperatures in Washington without overheating in Kansas. Even Clinton - who in real policy terms has achieved remarkably little during his six years in office - could probably stumble on another two years continuing to do little more, shamed but not ashamed.

The world, however, will find it rather more difficult to cope not only with a passive America but one whose president is maimed and whose relations with the political establishment is so poisoned that he can deliver nothing but the occasional jabs of his military. It shouldn't be so, but the end of the Cold War and the shifts in economic fortune have left the international scene in an unusual vacuum. American leadership, or at least the provision of American muscle, is needed.

The Middle East is the obvious example. Clinton's visit to the region to try and revive the dying peace process was marred from the start by his troubles at home. If it was not for those troubles, he would probably never have tried it. The superimposition of the Iraqi crisis, co-incident although it was, has only made that failure the worse. While Clinton and Blair have talked of containment, the rest of the Middle East has simply seen further evidence of Arab humiliation and powerlessness before the West. The allies, said Tony Blair at the beginning, had no choice but to respond once Saddam Hussein had deliberately cocked a snook at the inspectorate and made a mockery of his promises of a few months ago. But even accepting this, which we shouldn't, "no choice" is the very worst route of politics, still more of war. The lesson of this - and the lesson that Blair seems so reluctant to understand - is that the vacuum of international politics has to be filled by international institutions. The result of the bombardment of Iraq has been a diminution of the UN. Blair has been left alone on a stage which should never have been held by a duet in the first place. As Clinton has failed at home, so Blair's divorce from the rest of the world and the ridiculousness of Britain's position as America's mercenary has seemed more glaring.

As for Clinton, one can only despair. The very character - his buoyancy - that makes him determined to fight on is the very character that means his enemies will not rest until they have finished him. It's almost impossible to see compromise in these circumstances, or any conclusion that does not bear the seeds of its own poison.

He should resign. He won't resign. The world will be the worse for it, and Blair the littler.