A piffling affair that is crippling Clinton

Can the rest of the world take seriously an American President who has become mired in a sordid sex scandal?

SQUALID SEX in the White House may not unmake an American presidency. But Cruise missiles do not make one either.

No president, virtuous or less virtuous, has ever had qualms about sending posses over international borders to seek and destroy America's foes. Witness countless CIA "covert" actions, the 1986 air strikes against Libya, not to mention all the foreign terrorist suspects who have been seized abroad to face trial in the US. In this case, if the proof was there, public opinion would have expected nothing less.

Nor is it conceivable that William Cohen, the proud and independent-minded Defence Secretary, one of a handful of Republican Congressmen to vote articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon in 1974, would have stayed in office five minutes more if he felt another president in dire trouble was using the might of the Pentagon to save his own skin. On Thursday, the message was sent thunderously loud and crystal clear: a president may have been caught with his pants down, but the global military reach of the US is unique and the will to use it undiminished.

Alas, life is not a Western film. Terrorism is hydra-headed. It responds to violence with more violence. Reprisals, Washington admits, are all but certain, and with them, probably, more American deaths. Cruise missiles, symbol of virtual-reality "smart" war, are one thing; but how will ordinary citizens feel when they watch more flag-draped coffins arrive at Andrews Air Force Base, and listen to teary eulogies from a man proved to be a sleazy liar?

Here, public office and personal conduct intersect for Bill Clinton the Commander-in-Chief. But for Clinton the ultimate arbiter of foreign policy, a price is being paid. Maybe, by a noble effort of will, visitors to the White House will banish every prurient thought from their minds. But Teddy Roosevelt's "bully pulpit" is part of the job, in foreign as in domestic affairs. Subtly but surely, America's authority, its ability to round up allies for any vital future initiative, has been eroded. This president remains leader of the free world, but a tarnished leader, one who may have lost some of the trust of his own national security team.

Now the great bureaucracies of Washington can run virtually on autopilot, and the Clinton cabinet will retain its facade of harmony. But ultimately policy is set by a president and his most senior advisers. Time and attention will be consumed by the demands of Kenneth Starr. And how must Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, feel? They went out on a limb in their president's defence, having been assured by him of his innocence - only to find out they had been used and deceived. Was it just the imagination, or did both seem edgy and less than happy as they explained the raids to the press? If so, it bodes ill for what may lie ahead.

"Monicagate" could be the scandal that delimits an era - the culiminating folly and fatuity of a tabloidised, sex- and celebrity-obsessed age where the serious is ignored and the trivial elevated to the quasi-sacred. Here is the leader of the world's most powerful country making headlines not for his initiatives on the Middle East, Russia or Asia's financial crisis but for his lewd relationship with a gooey-eyed 21-year-old intern - a president who has turned the Oval Office from a theatre of high policy into one of fetishism and fellatio. So what, one may say, when the world has reached the End of History? Unfortunately history may be about to return with a vengeance, at a moment that has more than a whiff of the last lotus summer before the crash of 1929. And even before his latest embarrassments, Bill Clinton hardly looked the man to handle history's resurgence.

By and large over the past five-and-a-half years, he has been a disappointment in foreign affairs. Here was a man by age, outlook and intellect perfectly qualified to be the first president in the complex post-Cold War era. Yet, long before Lewinsky was a gleam in his wandering eye, he was fumbling almost every opportunity.

There was glaring failure in the Middle East, where Israel was permitted to destroy the peace process. He has huffed and puffed on Iraq to no obvious profit. He dithered for two years in Bosnia as tens of thousands died. The pattern is invariably the same: he is a man who dazzles interlocutors with his charm and grasp of issues, only to leave them clutching straws, who proclaims US leadership but offers next to none. For most of his first term, foreign policy was a distraction. One of the few successes, in Northern Ireland, was fortuitously born of an attempt to curry favour with Irish-American voters. He has been more engaged since 1996, but not noticeably more successful. Thus far he has been lucky, and history forgiving. Perhaps not, however, for much longer.

By now Clinton would have been close to lame duck status anyway, hobbled by a Republican majority in Congress and entering that final stretch when all eyes, and all calculations, are on the race to succeed him. Fortunately, the US has the capable Robert Rubin at the Treasury and Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve. But what if financial crisis is fuelled by perception of vacuum at the White House?

And already, as the cat looks the other way, the mice are having a field day. North Korea may be reneging on the 1994 agreement that was supposed to neutralise its nuclear programme. Saddam Hussein is again thumbing his nose at the UN inspectors, amid talk that Washington, for all its bluster, has secretly told Richard Butler and his men to ease off on Baghdad. Long before this week's air strikes, the Arab world was on edge. Even Israel, which he bent over backwards to humour, is repaying the kindness by ignoring him. Clinton's resilience, his ability to "compartmentalise" - to shut one set of circumstances completely out of his mind while dealing with another - are extraordinary. But now even these may not be enough.

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