Leading Article: Mr Clinton's next trial is to prove he is a world leader

THANK GOODNESS it is all over. A year ago, President Clinton looked bruised, vulnerable, truculent and earnest. After going through the wringer of investigation, trial and acquittal, he looks, well, bruised, vulnerable, truculent and earnest. It is most odd. The full weight of the American constitution has borne down on Mr Clinton. The high-rise moralising of the American and world media has toppled over on him. And he has emerged from the cyclone like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, back at home behind the white picket fence.

Nothing much has changed, except that Mr Clinton is more popular now than a year ago. The American economy has continued to defy the laws of both gravity and economics, and the President has continued to take the credit for Alan Greenspan's shrewd management.

But important lessons have been learned. Journalists, and not just in the United States, have discovered that voters are quite capable of deciding, if they are given the facts, that a politician can be flawed and still be good at his job. And they were certainly given the facts. However, although journalists may have contributed to the hysteria preceding the successive waves of salacious revelation, they were not responsible for the revelations themselves. It was the President himself who caused the gross invasion of his own and Monica Lewinsky's privacy. If he had only pleaded the Fifth Amendment - the right not to incriminate himself - in the Paula Jones case, he would not have lied about his affair with the intern. With the arrogance of power, he could not have foreseen that he would be tripped up by a caricature Nemesis called Tripp. But in the end, knowing more than any of them could reasonably have wanted to know, the American people decided none of it mattered.

Their verdict was transmitted through the machinery of the constitution, which may not be as good as American patriots think it is, but which is never the less a magnificent democratic construction. The case against the President was more than fully aired and the right result was achieved: Mr Clinton was humiliated and embarrassed, but endorsed as chief executive.

As a result, the Republican party has learnt something too, although it is too shell-shocked to know what it is. The one person who seems to have learnt nothing is Kenneth Starr, whom Mrs Malaprop might have described as the "independent persecutor". Yesterday's vote may not be, of course, the absolute end of the story because Mr Starr shows every sign of wanting to bring criminal charges against his quarry in the ordinary courts. It is not clear whether he can do this while Mr Clinton is still in office, but as Mr Starr's commission lasts for one year after the President leaves office, he will certainly be able to do it then.

Mr Starr's coda apart, though, the world can breathe a sigh of relief and turn to more important matters. Mr Clinton has a world to lead and a place in history to secure. And it is in foreign policy that he needs to work hardest in order to make up for lost time. For, although the agonies and distractions of the impeachment process have had surprisingly few ill effects in domestic affairs, damage has been done to America's moral authority abroad. In particular, Mr Clinton bombed an aspirin factory in the suburbs of Khartoum in order to draw attention away from his broadcast admission, two days before, of a relationship with Ms Lewinsky that was "not appropriate" and "wrong". That was inexcusable, and it is noticeable that no evidence has since been produced to substantiate the claim that it was making chemical weapons. Not in America, and not here, despite the British Government's fulsome support for the bombing. It was illegal, but it was also a big tactical error, because it will have fuelled the sense of Arab Muslim grievance against the US and its allies - the sense of grievance which inspires the same fundamentalist terrorists against whom the bombing was aimed.

Now, though, Mr Clinton has the chance to look forward over the next two years and to redeem himself as the last 20th-century president. There is bound to be a worry that he only operates well - and when he operates well, he is undoubtedly a brilliant politician - when he is under pressure. He may be tempted to relax into an extended transition to an Al Gore presidency. For the sake of a world which could see the rule of law increasingly take the place of the superpower rivalries which once held sway, it is to be hoped that Mr Clinton feels the goad of the historian's pen in the small of his back. Peace, human rights and a sustainable ecology require an attentive leader of the most powerful nation.

He cannot escape the fate of being the president who brought the Oval Office into bawdy ridicule. But now that he has been acquitted, he has the chance to add to that the distinction of being the first president to emerge strengthened from impeachment, and the first to translate the high ideals of the American constitution, which in the end served him well, into international law.

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