Somalia cuts Clinton down to size: Just as the President's ratings take a turn for the better, the memory of his predecessors' blunders return to haunt him

PRESIDENT Clinton stayed in the East Room of the White House until late on Wednesday to sign an arcane piece of domestic legislation. First, interrogated in front of ranks of cameras, he was forced to talk about Somalia. His words, his whole demeanour, were flat and unenlightening. Then, without pause, he skipped on to domestic policy. His large frame visibly reinflated.

The bizarre spectacle - two Bill Clintons in the space of a few seconds - was the more bizarre for being a precise reversal of the double persona of his predecessor. George Bush was always fascinated by the rest of the world but bewildered and bored by his own country.

Just when Bill Clinton's popularity ratings have been recovering dramatically, he faces the most perilous crisis of his young presidency. Nothing is more calculated to enrage the American public than the sight of their soldiers being killed and humiliated in a foreign land - especially when their reasons for being there are not absolutely clear.

The Texan Republican, Senator Phil Gramm, forgetting that it was Mr Bush who began America's 'humanitarian' mission in Somalia, growled last week: 'The people who are dragging American bodies (through Mogadishu) don't look very hungry to the people of Texas.'

Just as he seemed about to seize control of his own agenda for the first time, Mr Clinton finds himself haunted by the spectres of past debacles. Ronald Reagan abruptly withdrew troops from a peace-keeping mission in Beirut in 1983 after a suicide lorry-bombing left 241 US marines dead. Mr Reagan survived but Mr Clinton's two immediate Democrat predecessors saw their presidencies destroyed on foreign shores: Jimmy Carter by the Tehran hostage crisis and Lyndon Johnson by Vietnam. Somalia contains, in miniature, echoes of all three.

It is a moment for Americans to ask again whether Mr Clinton, nine months into his White House tenancy, has the 'right stuff' to be their president. When he appears before them in the Oval Office, as he did on Thursday evening to explain his Somali policy, does he inspire trust and respect? Can he show, or at least convincingly act out, leadership in the way that Ronald Reagan and George Bush often could?

Despite the trappings and pomp that now surround him, Mr Clinton did not convince. Even on the most serious occasions, he seems unable to shake off that goofy, aw-shucks smile that makes him look more like a schoolboy who has just won the class prize than a commander-in-chief. And Bill Clinton, who avoided Vietnam and wrote that he detested the army as a young man, has never been able to look comfortable alongside the military. A Clinton salute is more likely to elicit smirks from voters than feelings of patriotic pride.

Most damaging, perhaps, is the enduring perception of the President as a 'Slick Willie'. His transparent desire to please everyone only works to confirm the popular suspicion that he has no particular commitment to anyone.

On foreign policy at least, his leadership seems to be utterly reactive. On Somalia, the impression is that he was driven into explaining his position by an outraged Congress. When it came, his solution was classic Clinton: he is not pulling his troops out nor is he responding with massive force. Instead he is trying to do both, by doubling the American presence now and promising to be out by next April. Only when he addresses domestic policy matters, most notably in presenting his plan for healthcare reform to Congress last month, does Mr Clinton appear equal to his office.

One Washington foreign policy analyst, an acquaintance of the President, says: 'Bill Clinton's entire persona, his self-image as a politician, depends on his being able to outstrip every other politician in knowing about the domestic issues . . . On a scale of 1-100 you would give most politicians about 60, but Bill Clinton gets about 90. On foreign policy, though, I would say he is at 30. I suspect he feels that if it cannot be 90 then he will not even try to make it to 60.'

Clinton foreign policy has been marked by muddle, punctuated by bursts of incoherent energy, relapsing once again into muddle. His staunch support for Boris Yeltsin through the Russian crisis seems a notable exception. But the policy was in essence a non-policy: holding onto Boris for 'fear of something worse'. There was near panic in Washington, as well as the Kremlin, when the anti-Yeltsin forces were briefly in the ascendant last weekend.

'The fundamental problem is that there is no rudder,' the former Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, said in an interview with the Independent on Sunday last week. 'They're going from pillar to post. Bosnia is the clearest example and now we're getting it on Somalia. They're back and forth and it is very hard to know what they're doing or exactly what it is they're aiming at on a lot of the issues.'

Nor were there favourable reviews for a string of speeches made last month by cabinet officials to rebuff claims that the administration had no post-Cold War vision. There was particular disappointment with the President's vaunted address to the UN General Assembly in New York on 27 September. While reassuring the diplomatic community that America was not about to turn in on itself, Mr Clinton exhorted the UN to restrain its appetite for involving itself in every conflict on the globe.

'It was an opportunity for a major presentation of the UN's objectives and what it should be doing,' Mr Eagleburger remarked. 'Instead we got what it shouldn't be doing. The world is going to be an awful mess and you don't approach it by saying what you are not going to do.'

Critics, including Mr Eagleburger, concede that with the old bi-polar world of the superpowers gone, it is hard for any government to define a coherent foreign policy. 'It is an unpleasant and difficult and confusing world,' Mr Eagleburger said. And if the Bush administration were still in power? 'I think frankly we would have done it better. But I can't deny that we would have been confused too.'

A Western diplomat in Washington was similarly sympathetic. 'It's not surprising (Clinton) doesn't have an overarching concept of what to do because for the life of me I don't know anyone in the world who does. Crises emerge without rhyme nor reason.'

Much of the problem can be traced to the President's unimpressive foreign affairs team. Warren Christopher, his Secretary of State, has drawn criticism from the start as a man of competence and caution but little imagination. The western diplomat said the President 'lacks a public figure in the foreign affairs arena who can get up and say in clear and impassioned terms what we're doing and why we're doing it'.

The President strove for the necessary clarity in addressing the nation on Thursday, as if grasping for the first time an American political truism: presidencies cannot be made by foreign actions or inactions, but they can be destroyed by them. Unless Mr Clinton can deliver on his promise to end America's involvement in Somalia tidily - which will have to include retrieving at least one hostage - he risks paying a heavy price indeed. Somalia is not Vietnam, nor is it Tehran. But the memories of both episodes are branded still on the American conscience. If Mr Clinton takes the country back down that painful path, any number of domestic achievements may not save him in 1996.

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
football
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel
travel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform