Clinton accused: Why this scandal will have international repercussions

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The Independent Online
The latest sex scandal to engulf Bill Clinton may be the most serious crisis of the American presidency since Watergate. And, just as 24 years ago, Rupert Cornwell explains, the travails of the leader of the world's lone superpower will have repercussions not just at home, but around the globe.

It is not quite a case - at least not yet - of "Stop the world, there's a scandal in Washington". The US President may be chief of the executive arm of government, and foreign policy the field where his power is least trammelled by Congress, but the finely honed bureaucratic machine is more than capable of running itself. Power however is above all the perception of power. And a perceived loss of prestige or focus in the White House can give wrong ideas to the wrong people.

Beyond doubt, as Watergate approached its endgame, Richard Nixon's domestic weakness strengthened Leonid Brezhnev's hand during the arms negotiations and Middle East crises of 1973 and 1974. As 24 years ago, the risk exists of a concession or a gamble too far, to secure a foreign policy success to offset the accumulating disaster at home.

Admittedly, the stakes this time are less. For all his wickednesses, Saddam Hussein is not a patch on expansionist Communism as a global villain. But that may not stop him upping the ante further in his latest confrontation with the United Nations arms inspectors, confident that a distracted and diminished Bill Clinton will be still less inclined to the sort of military retaliation that could cost American lives.

An enfeebled President bodes even worse for the Middle East "peace process". Whatever Europe's aspirations, the only outside power that can exert real pressure on both Arabs and the Israelis is the US. But this pressure is very much a function of the President's personal dealings with Benjamin Netanyahu, Yasser Arafat and the rest - and of his ability to sell his policy to Congress and the omnipotent American Jewish lobby. The last thing he needs is for the Monica Lewinsky affair to become grounds for impeachment.

On the executive side, any disengagement by Mr Clinton would almost certainly lead to an even higher profile for Al Gore, already one of Mr Clinton's closest foreign policy advisers and among the most influential vice presidents of modern times, and for Madeleine Albright at the State Department. Thus it was in the last months of the Nixon White House, where Alexander Haig and Henry Kissinger effectively ran the show.

To be fair, it hasn't reached anywhere near that point yet. Mr Clinton looked focussed and determined enough during his latest attempt in the Oval Office to wring concessions from Mr Netanyahu, which in any case was a non-starter even before Lewinsky became the most famous name in America. And it may never do, anywhere short of certain impeachment.

A frequent characteristic of US presidents is the ability to "compartmentalise". John Kennedy had the gift in spades, keeping Cuba, Berlin and other matters of state separate from chronic ill health and a reckless sex life. So for a long while did Richard Nixon, never more so than in October 1973, when he simultaneously ordered the sacking of the Watergate special prosecutor, and an increase in American military alert to face down a reputed Russian nuclear threat in the Middle East.

Mr Clinton has the same gift, to the extent that he seems to positively thrive on risk. On the Edge was the title of one biography. The self- proclaimed "Comeback Kid" did it again, this time in the White House, after the humiliating loss of Congress to the Republicans in November 1994. Two years later Newt Gingrich had been comprehensively outmanoeuvred, and Mr Clinton cruised to re-election, in spite of Whitewater, Paula Jones, "Travelgate", Hillary's cattle-futures trading and sundry other embarrassments great and small.

Never though has a President accustomed to living on the edge looked closer to falling off it.