President In Crisis: Video release mars Clinton speech to UN

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The Independent Online
THE WHITE HOUSE struggled yesterday to proclaim its continued involvement in foreign policy, warning America's enemies that it remained vigilant. But the release of the video tape of President Bill Clinton's most embarrassing hours will coincide precisely with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, an event that will now be overshadowed in the American media by fresh evidence of his domestic problems.

The General Assembly is one of the paramount events on the world political calendar, bringing together most of the heads of state or government represented in the UN. The President is due to deliver a speech on Monday that will mark America's tougher stance against terrorism, to win support and reassure allies that the US is not on an anti-Islamic crusade. That will now be relegated to the bottom of the front pages, if that; and television, which at last will have pictures of the President as well as a story, will focus overwhelmingly on the images of the Commander-in-Chief in trouble, not those of him leading the world.

White House officials have gone to great lengths to spell out the fact that they are still engaged, still active and still involved in foreign affairs. "It would be a grave mistake for any foreign leader or any group to believe that if the United States' interests are threatened, the United States would not respond in a firm and united way," said Sandy Berger, the President's National Security Adviser yesterday.

He pointed out that America had not held back from responding after the bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi and had launched strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan.

"We had strong bi-partisan support for doing that and I believe that...when America's interests are at issue, that Republicans and Democrats generally come together to do the things that have to be done," he said.

But there is still great controversy over the missile strikes, with critics contending that the President intended to deflect attention from his domestic problems with a display of military might.

And the ground for attacking the factory in Khartoum, which the US claimed was a chemical weapons plant and Sudan says was a pharmaceuticals plant, is still unclear.

On Thursday, former President Jimmy Carter even suggested sending an investigative team to the plant to investigate charges that it had links to either Osama bin Laden, the rich Saudi accused by America of leading the embassy bombings, an idea which the White House tried to quash energetically yesterday. "We don't think its necessary," a spokesman for Mr Berger said.

But the mere fact that the White House feels the need to assert its activity is a sign that all is not well. The US is confronting a series of bubbling foreign policy problems, and the greater risk is not that it will lash out, but that it will simply fail to focus on them.

The lingering crisis with Iraq - which has again cut off weapons inspections - is causing increasing frustration and anger in Washington, where the administration stands accused by its enemies of inaction and inattention. In Kosovo, there is a US-sponsored peace plan on the table, but the worsening plight of refugees and increasing violence risk causing human suffering and growing political tension.

Mr Berger said that the President's address to the General Assembly would focus on the fight against terrorism, and the need for greater support from the rest of the world. But repeating a theme that he used after the missile strike, the President also wants to explain that the attacks were not against Islam.

"The fight against terrorism is not a clash of civilisations or cultures," Mr Berger said. "The dividing line is between those who practise, support and tolerate terror, and those who understand that terrorism is plain and simple murder."

On Monday, the President is due to attend a special conference hosted by New York University on democracy in the global economy, a gathering that will bring together Tony Blair and other Social Democratic leaders committed to the "Third Way" - a path between socialism and capitalism.

This should have been a valuable opportunity for world leaders to share ideas about the crisis in world markets, in Russia, and the looming disorder in Latin American financial markets; but now the President's domestic problems will, again, overshadow the event.

It remains to be seen how close other world leaders wish to be to Mr Clinton. He is, if not an embarrassment, then certainly badly damaged; some may feel that at the moment it is not apposite to be photographed too often with him.