Moments That Made The Year : America ruled by 2000 reasons for the quiet life

Clinton romped home tapping a mood of peace and prosperity, but in an increasingly isolationist US, writes Rupert Cornwell

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word quadrennial as meaning 1) lasting four years, and 2) recurring every four years. They apply in equal measure to the event which dominated America's affairs in 1996 - the presidential election, technically held on 5 November but for which jockeying was under way before Bill Clinton had been inaugurated for a first term in January 1993.

But all these mighty endeavours resulted in anti-climax. Once the retired general Colin Powell, the strongest potential Republican candidate, announced in November 1995 that he would not run, Mr Clinton moved into a lead which hardly varied between the Iowa caucuses in mid-February, the kick- off to the primary season, and voting day.

The Republican challenger, Bob Dole, notwithstanding a singularly inept campaign, lost by only eight points.

The margin would almost certainly have been larger but for the late-breaking controversy over seamy foreign fund-raising by the Democrats, which raised familiar ethical doubts about Mr Clinton, and may have cost his party its chance of regaining at least partial control of Congress.

But the basic message sent by voters was plain. America is prosperous and at peace. Its citizens are increasingly conservative, but reasonably content with their lot, and unnerved at what an ideologically driven Republican party with unfettered control of the executive and legislative branches might do. Thus they opted for the status quo, making Mr Clinton the first Democrat since Roosevelt to win a second term. Or rather, nominally Democratic.

His greatest strength as a politician (and his greatest weakness) is his capacity to be all things to all men. His campaign stole traditional Republican themes by the bucketful - among them law and order, tougher welfare rules and a balanced budget - at one point producing the paradox of stock and bond-price declines on the rare occasions when the Republicans, once the party of Wall Street, seemed to have a sniff of victory. Expect him now to run the most conservative Democratic administration of the 20th century. And that, the election showed, is exactly what the country wants, whatever its feelings about Bill Clinton the man.

But contentment breeds an inward gaze. To say America has turned isolationist would be an exaggeration. Despite the contempt for the United Nations that culminated in this month's shoddy ousting of its Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, the Clinton administration is well aware that while the US is the world's indispensable nation, it also needs a functioning UN.

If anything, US involvement in peace-keeping and in other multilateral missions has increased over the past four years. You just wouldn't guess it by listening.

In the campaign, apart from Mr Dole's periodic denunciations of "Boootros Boootros Ghali", and his supposed quest to wrest control of the US military from the Pentagon, foreign policy was barely mentioned. "Has anyone got a foreign affairs question?" pleaded the moderator Jim Lehrer towards the end of the second presidential debate in San Diego. After a silence, there was a rather sheepish inquiry about trade with Japan. The moment encapsulated two truths: that the demise of the Soviet Union has taken national security off the table, and that if Clinton foreign policy has a constant, it is a focus on international economics.

But while foreign policy may not have affected the election, it certainly affected foreign-policy making. By no coincidence, Mr Clinton's one important pronouncement of the campaign, a commitment to an enlarged Nato by 1999, came in Cleveland, Ohio - home to great numbers of people of East European origin, swing voters in a crucial state. In the Middle East, American diplomacy was put on hold: what president wants a skirmish with Israel in an election year?

By luck rather than judgement, the administration got away with it. An uncommon and doubtless transient calm settled on the world in 1996. Despite the jolt to the Middle East peace process administered by Likud's election victory in May, most Washington foreign policy objectives survived the year unscathed.

Boris Yeltsin was re-elected. Peace of a kind prevails in Bosnia, and Mr Clinton's decision to keep US troops in the Balkans for a further 12 to 18 months raised hardly an eyebrow. Relations with China seem on the mend, while Fidel Castro was, as always, an irritant. This time, though, his antics, by enabling Mr Clinton to talk tough on Havana to the Cuban- American community in Florida, may have helped the President carry a traditionally Republican state in November. The Mexican peso did not collapse, and Haiti did not explode. About the only shots fired in earnest by the US military were the 44 cruise missiles launched against Iraq in early September. The end of history may not have arrived yet, but in Washington this year it has sometimes seemed so.

In fact, none of the basic questions has been properly answered. Internationalism and isolationism continue their age-old struggle for America's soul. Despite Mr Clinton's promise, Nato enlargement remains a fiercely debated topic. Nor has a framework for American intervention abroad been established. Think-tanks and distinguished columnists yearn for a "Clinton Doctrine", an articulated foreign policy blueprint. Certainly, the dour and cautious Warren Christopher was never likely to provide one. Perhaps that will change with the forceful new Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and the greater interest in foreign policy to be expected from a second- term President.

But here too, the "quadrennial" rule applies. Mr Clinton has not even been sworn in for a second term. In the meantime, quietly yet unmistakably, Vice-President Al Gore and a clutch of Republicans are already manoeuvring for election 2000.

Washington Correspondent

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