It was a dramatic lesson in American politics: just because a president is on his last legs, does not mean that he will not deliver surprises in the field of foreign affairs and military adventurism. It was also, of course, a lesson in practicalities: the mission failed flamboyantly, leaving American corpses and hardware scattered across the desert.
As President Bill Clinton confronts his damaged presidency, the world will wonder what it can expect of a man who is clearly badly weakened, whose party is the minority in both Houses of Congress and who cannot run again for president. Traditionally, presidents quickly discover that though their domestic policymaking is strictly limited by the constitution, they have more latitude in foreign policy. As they approach the end of their term in office, that becomes even more pressing and they start to consider their "place in history". But at times like these, even that latitude becomes limited - and sometimes in damaging and dangerous ways.
The pillars of the President's power in foreign policy are threefold: political, diplomatic and military. Politically, the President was already weak and is now more so. He cannot realistically expect to get many of his top priorities through Congress.
Diplomatically, America remains America. It continues to wield enormous power in every key arena of decision-making. But at the margins, it will be that much more difficult to get allies to play along when the President is so obviously weakened; and enemies will be that much more willing to confront the US.
It is probably no coincidence that both Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Iraq's Saddam Hussein are thumbing their noses at the US. Nor will the White House have much hope of deploying pressure on Israel to end the stalemate in the Middle East and revive hopes of peace. Why should Benjamin Netanyahu listen to Bill Clinton now?
The most important point is that America's promises have much less weight when the White House is weakened. It cannot, in many cases, deliver. Aid packages, treaties and trade deals all go through Congress. Allies and opponents alike will prefer to wait out the next two years rather than strike major deals now.
But militarily, the White House is still in charge. Though the President has always had a difficult relationship with the military because of his decision not to fight during the Vietnam War, the military bureaucracy will continue to function despite the lack of legislative co- ordination.
The President, in short, can promise little in his remaining two years; but he can threaten. That creates a dangerous asymmetry between carrots and sticks in US foreign policy. As the Carter case shows, presidents sometimes become more bellicose in their final months, both because they want to demonstrate to the world that they are no pushover and because it seems the easiest way out of difficult situations.
President Clinton has used military force only haltingly during his years in office. He stood back from confrontation with Saddam Hussein earlier this year, for instance, during the last clash over weapons inspections. That may not be the case in future.Reuse content