City's fireworks mark both fury and festivity

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The Independent Online
First Edition

IF A city can be diagnosed to have something akin to terminal schizophrenia, that place was Washington DC yesterday. Never can that phrase 'a day of fireworks', have carried such different meanings.

Here, joyful ones were planned as the spectacular climax to the first evening of the week-long binge that is a US presidential inauguration. They were celebrating the arrival of Bill Clinton, the 42nd President, after he had, with studied symbolism, retraced the route to Washington of his predecessor Thomas Jefferson.

On Washington Mall the mood was festive, a carnival of entertainments, as a throng of thousands enjoyed a brilliant Sunday afternoon, warming up for the republic's equivalent of a coronation. But in the White House and the Pentagon, in the network studios and the newsrooms, the people who run this city and shape its thinking were hunched over television screens as they watched real fireworks some 5,000 miles away.

As the anti-aircraft fire lit the night sky over Baghdad, its detonations rattling buildings from where correspondents beamed live commentaries into US living rooms, two years fell away: 17 January 1991 had returned. Once again, George Bush was locked in deadly combat with Saddam Hussein. Who could believe that come Wednesday afternoon, it will no longer be Mr Bush, but that young man from Arkansas who has to give the orders to the cruise missile commanders and Kitty Hawk's pilots in the Gulf?

Whatever happens in Iraq, that change will happen. Anyone who doubts the inexorable dictates of the US constitution should wander near the White House, from where Mr Bush directed Operation Desert Storm. Yesterday he was exiled to Camp David for a last weekend in the presidential retreat. The White House is virtually invisible behind the grandstands from which Mr Clinton and other most privileged guests will review his inaugural parade. In terms of foreign policy, this has already been an extraordinary transition. In unprecedented defiance of his lame-duck status, Mr Bush has signed with Moscow the biggest nuclear arms deal in history. He has launched an unpredictable military expedition into Somalia. But few would have imagined his term would end with a tacit declaration of a renewed live war against Baghdad.

For Mr Clinton this will surely have proved a salutary experience. Probably that half-hint in a New York Times interview last week that if President Saddam mended his ways, he might forgive and forget, did not bring about this flare-up. But it did not help. In power, or on the brink of it, his every word is weighed around the world.

Figuratively, Iraq was a million miles from yesterday's bus cavalcade. But the two firework displays are inextricably linked. When they catch their breath from celebrating, even Mr Clinton's most ardent supporters will reflect that foreign policy, by his own admission, is not his strong suit. It will, however, be the first challenge of his presidency - perhaps even before the first waltz of an inaugural ball on Wednesday.

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