A problem even this president can't smooth talk this

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THE COLLAPSE of the Camp David peace talks is a potentially fatal blow to President Bill Clinton's long-cherished ambition to secure a place in history as a peacemaker.

THE COLLAPSE of the Camp David peace talks is a potentially fatal blow to President Bill Clinton's long-cherished ambition to secure a place in history as a peacemaker.

The process is by no means over, and Mr Clinton's repeated efforts to get the parties around a table have been widely praised in the US. But the Camp David summit showed the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.

Mr Clinton has made repeated efforts since arriving in the White House to use his good offices in pursuit of peace agreements. By temperament, he is adept at bringing people together, brokering differences and persuading. He also maintains a spirit of optimism.

During the talks, he said: "I feel we have the elements here to keep this process going ... I think it can happen", even when things seemed to be falling apart around him.

As his tenure in the White House draws to a close, Mr Clinton has stepped up his efforts to deal with foreign affairs. He would clearly like to be remembered for more than the impeachment scandal which tainted much of his second term.

"I felt it was a part of my job as president, my mission as a Christian and my personal journey of atonement," he said of an earlier intervention in the peace process.

But the brutal facts are that the Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia, have not yet established a lasting resolution to the country's problems. In Northern Ireland, though a decisive shift has been made, it is far from clear that the process will end happily. In the Middle East, Mr Clinton's efforts have not yet delivered the comprehensive deal he aspires to.

The President committed himself heavily to the Wye River peace talks in 1998, but the result was an agreement which seemed to be less than the sum of its parts, and which was not implemented on time.

There is scepticism in the international community about Mr Clinton's style, and his attention span. British officials are publicly full of praise for Mr Clinton's efforts in Northern Ireland. Privately, some say he has been less than active since the brokering of the Good Friday deal.

Like most countries, America tends to look at foreign conflicts through its own lens. It puts heavy emphasis on the personal role of Americans, so Mr Clinton's interventions tend to be seen favourably.

"President Clinton accomplished something very important at Camp David - and hats off to him for having the courage to try," wrote Thomas Friedman in The New York Times.

But The Washington Post said the summit - called at a time when there seemed little chance of success, and predicated on the President's skills rather than political reality - was quintessential Clinton. "Just before the Camp David peace talks got underway, President Clinton confided to an aide that the whole process was the equivalent of what in football is called a 'Hail Mary pass', a go-for-broke play with time running out," it said.

"This time, though, the old rhythms of Clinton's career failed him; the Hail Mary pass went bouncing on the ground."

His personal interventions were enough to get the parties to the table, but could not, of course, guarantee success. Beyond that, his attempt to speed a deal may, in some respects, have been counter-productive. Some officials in Washington say it could end up by hardening positions.