President Under Siege: Crises on hold as Clinton diverted

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The Independent Online
MANY GOVERNMENTS are nervously watching the drama gripping the US Presidency and its impact on the long list of world crises, actual and potential, all demanding American attention, some requiring solely American action.

Diplomats prefer to insist that the wheels of foreign policymaking in Washington continue to turn as normal, despite the hurricane unleashed by Bill Clinton's misdeeds with Monica Lewinsky. To an extent that is true, given the well-oiled machinery of American government.

"I don't think a vacuum is being felt yet" said one European diplomat. "But a lot depends on the next few days. If some compromise isn't reached soon we're bound to feel the impact."

Economically, the repercussions could affect almost every corner of the globe. True, the day-to-day levers of US financial policy are in the able hands of the Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, and the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan. But US support is vital if institutions such as the International Monetary Fund are to function properly.

Mr Clinton has asked Congress for $18bn to help replenish the IMF's echoing coffers. Even before the Starr report levelled possible impeachment charges against him, lawmakers were unwilling to provide more than $4bn or so. Now even less leverage is available to an enfeebled President for whom even an unprecedented censure by Congress would be merciful release. But without adequate resources, the Fund will be unable to cope with new emergencies that crop up in Asia and other markets.

Political flashpoints abound. There may be no question of further immediate Western financial assistance to Russia. But Moscow has a new government headed, in Yevgeny Primakov, by a prime minister whose policies in the Middle East and the Balkans run against US interests.

A deal between Israel and the Palestinians to restart the Middle East peace process seems less likely than ever. Mr Clinton is in no position to exert the US pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu that is probably essential for an agree- ment. The clock also ticks to next May's deadline for realisation of the Oslo accords, and a possible Palestinian declaration of independence.

With all eyes fastened on the White House, Iraq's decision yesterday to end all co-operation with UN arms inspectors, and the increasingly brutal crackdown by President Milosevic against Albanian separatists in Kosovo have gone unnoticed - if not by the State Department and the Pentagon, then by the TV news channels whose footage can prod policymakers into action.

A nuclear arms race is in progress in the Indian sub-continent, while renegade North Korea last week tested a long-range missile and may be about to renege on the 1994 agreement with the US designed to halt its nuclear weapons development programme.

In the background lurks the figure of Osama bin Laden, and the very real risk of further terrorist attacks against US targets around the world.

Up to a point all these can be dealt with by the bureaucracy - to the point of a checklist of options lying on the President's desk. But at a certain point Mr Clinton's active involvement is needed. And amid the worst crisis of his Presidency, even his famous ability to "compartmentalise" bad news and concentrate on pressing matters to hand may no longer be enough.

Market reaction, page 18

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